MOBILE, Ala. — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald would bet on Dan Vitale. If the former Wildcats superback is one-on-one against a linebacker in a hole, Fitzgerald knows what to expect.
‘‘[Vitale will] knock his lips off,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Not a problem at all. He’s a very physical foot-
NFL teams want to see just that this week during Senior Bowl preparations. Vitale, a Wheaton Warrenville South graduate, and USC’s Soma Vainuku are the only players listed as fullbacks in the Senior Bowl.
Teams check in with nearly every player during practice week for the Senior Bowl. Vitale said he felt good about his long conversations with representatives from the Bears, Broncos, Falcons and Buccaneers.
The Bears featured tight end Zach Miller at fullback this season, but there are signs they have interest in the position. Fullback Paul Lasike was on the practice squad for most of the season and was signed to a future/reserves contract last month.
For Vitale, there are differences in focusing primarily on blocking after he excelled as a receiver in NU’s hybrid superback position. He needs to show he can put his hand in the dirt and be a downhill blocker who cleans out holes for the backs behind him.
‘‘I think my versatility and athleticism is one of my big strengths that I have,’’ said Vitale, a 6-2, 235-pounder. ‘‘But in terms of comfort, I do feel at home at fullback now. I was never quite tall enough to be a tight end, but this fullback position, I can see everything. I use my speed, and then you get a full head of steam going forward, too. I’m starting to like that feel of it.’’
Vitale’s college coaches envision things clicking quickly for him.
‘‘He’s going to be a fullback in the NFL, let’s face it,’’ NU superbacks coach Bob Heffner said. ‘‘But he did some of that stuff, coming back and chopping defensive ends, and he faced a lot of good ones in the Big Ten over the years. He’s not a prima donna where he wants the ball. He’ll do whatever needs to be done.’’
Teams might use fullbacks sparingly nowadays, but Vitale’s pass-catching ability separates him from others. A four-year starter and a captain with the Wildcats, Vitale caught 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in college. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection this season.
By comparison, Vainuku had only 17 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown in his career at USC.
‘‘[Vitale had] a lot of training in our offense as a receiver,’’ Heffner said. ‘‘If you get him locked up — as we have at times — on the right person, he can outrun somebody straight down the sideline.’’
Fitzgerald said he can see Vitale doing even more at the NFL level.
‘‘He’s gotten a lot of interest,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘It’s just going to come down to what organization is looking for him. He’s an H-back/fullback, and he’s going to be a core-four special-teams guy. . . . He’s going to play his tail off and play well in the kicking game.’’
Off the field, there are zero questions. Vitale’s willingness to play through and tough out injuries resonated with Heffner, who will remember a feisty player who was a challenge for the training staff.
‘‘You don’t get many of those guys,’’ Heffner said. ‘‘We all know that there’s plenty of places where you have people who want to get out of practice. Dan was one who would fight his way back in.’’
Fitzgerald’s message to NFL teams went a step further.
‘‘I’ve have three little boys, and if they grow up to be half as good as Dan Vitale, then [wife] Stacy and I can look at each other and say we’ve raised some special young men,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m going to miss him big time.’’
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