Northwestern’s “superback” turns in super performance at the NFL Combine

Danny Vitale
Northwestern's Danny Vitale talks to media at the 2016 NFL Combine in Indianapolis (Adam Rossow/MEDILL)

By Tolly Taylor

INDIANAPOLIS — The day before he recorded the fastest 40-yard dash of any fullback in five years, Danny Vitale walked into the NFL Scouting Combine media center for interviews. Eight or nine reporters gathered around, crowding close to him, shoving recorders in his face. They wanted to know if he thought the NFL had any use for a “superback,” the unique position Northwestern created just for Vitale.

“Would you be happy only playing special teams in the NFL?” they asked.

Smiles don’t get much bigger. By the next day, anyone at the combine who hadn’t heard of Vitale would know his name.

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From the day his college career ended on January 2, Vitale began focusing on training for the combine. He sought out Tommy Christian, owner and founder of TCBOOST Sports Performance in Northbrook, and quickly established a daily routine.

On Mondays, Vitale concentrated on fast, efficient starts in the 40-yard dash, ending his day with a full-body lift. Tuesdays, it was quick-twitch drills followed by another full-body lift. Wednesdays were recovery days, using sled pulls and massages to get lactic acid out of his legs. Thursday repeated Monday’s schedule, and Friday followed Tuesday’s routine.

A few days before leaving for the combine, Vitale recounted that he was “nervous” during the Senior Bowl in late January, a week that nonetheless garnered positive reviews. This time, he spoke confidently about his goals.

“I can’t wait to go, because [these drills] have always been something I’m good at,” Vitale said. “As far as the 40-yard dash, I’m hoping I can run the fastest times out of the fullbacks and compete with the running backs in every drill.”

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Dressed in his gray and lime green warm-ups with a player credential draped around his neck, Vitale looked like every other athlete in the combine’s media center. The No. 26 was stitched onto the left breast of his jacket. He was just another number. But his plan was to stand out.

“Obviously I’m not going to be hitting anybody, but if they can see that explosion and that hip snap and all that stuff,” Vitale said, “then they’ll know I’m generating force and I’m
able to [hit people] physically.”

Safe to say he showed his explosive potential. The next day, in addition to his impressive 40-yard dash time, Vitale had the highest vertical jump and fastest 60-yard shuttle of any fullback, as well as the most reps on the bench press and the fastest 20-yard shuttle time of any running back or fullback.

“He can catch the ball pretty effectively, he’s a good blocker,” said Todd McShay, a draft analyst for ESPN. “I think he’s going to be a special team’s player and a Day 3 pick.”

Mike Mayock, the NFL Network draft expert, had a similar take on Vitale.

“He’s a superback with good hands,” Mayock said. “He’s going to have to move around, be an H-back.”

They weren’t wrong. Vitale was a good blocker in college, and he does have good hands. His senior season at Northwestern, he led the team with 33 catches for 355 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.

But despite speaking on Day 4, a full 24 hours after Vitale completed the combine drills, neither McShay nor Mayock had heard about what the superback had done.

Not surprisingly, teams were lining up to talk to him. During the informal interview portion of the combine, Vitale said he spoke with the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts each interviewed him twice.

Danny Vitale
Vitale was excited for the combine, and for good reason: He posted the best times in five of seven drills (Adam Rossow/MEDILL).

“One thing that was pretty cool was the Chargers talking about having someone to block for Melvin Gordon,” Vitale said.

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It’s Tuesday, and Vitale has been back training at TCBOOST for three days, taking just a day off after the combine.

“I’m definitely happy with it, but I’ve actually done better in every test before,” said Vitale, laughing to himself. “It’s interesting seeing [friends and family] get excited when the competitor in me knows I’ve done so much better.”

Vitale didn’t have any formal interviews with teams, but it’s not necessarily a knock against him: no fullbacks did. Besides, not every team saw him as a fullback.

Washington, San Diego, Chicago and New England all asked Vitale about playing tight end in certain situations. It’s not hard to see why.

“People always ask me who I used to watch and who I like to model my game after,” Vitale said.

“A couple years ago, I always used to say [Aaron Hernandez]. Now I try to stay away from that obviously, because of what happened. But that’s kind of how I see myself as a player on the football field, a kind of do it all kind of guy, a jack of all trades.”

Vitale plans to show off his versatility at his pro day on March 8. Still, there’s one combine drill he can’t forget.

“The only thing I’m going to do again is the three-cone drill,” Vitale said. “I probably don’t need to, but the competitor in me wants to show that I can get below seven [seconds].”

Photo at top: Northwestern’s Danny Vitale talks to media at the 2016 NFL Combine in Indianapolis (Adam Rossow/MEDILL)