Northwestern’s Vitale a ‘superback’ suited for many positions in NFL, too

Danny Feature
Danny Vitale works out with head trainer Tommy Christian at TCBOOST Sports Performance in Northbrook

By Tolly Taylor

To work on his route running, Dan Vitale catches passes from Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian. To improve his blocking explosiveness, Vitale uses specific band and barbell exercises. Everything he does is to make him stronger, faster and better at a variety of positions for the NFL.

Everything he can do makes him more valuable for the NFL Draft.

Northwestern University’s former “superback” would line up at fullback, running back, tight end or slot receiver in college. At 6 feet 1, 243 pounds, he is listed as a fullback, but his ability to play all over the offense and special teams could make him more attractive to the NFL, which holds its draft Thursday through Saturday in Chicago.

“He’s at an advantage,” said Bob Christian, a former NFL fullback from Northwestern drafted 25 years ago. “What is needed (at the fullback position) in the NFL is a jack of all trades.”

(Tolly Taylor/ Medill)
(Tolly Taylor/ Medill)

Christian worked with Vitale before the Senior Bowl in January, the two focusing on the details of run blocking and pass protection.

“He was the best pass blocker (at the Senior Bowl) I saw all week of running backs and fullbacks,” said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, an writer. “Being able to block, catch — that versatility gives you longevity in the NFL.”

Scouts Inc. rates Vitale the top fullback available in the draft on, but a Day 3 selection, meaning Rounds 4-7. Many NFL teams today don’t use fullbacks, and he is generally projected to go in the middle to late rounds, even if Vitale isn’t your typical fullback.

“I’m moving towards the new route, which is kind of like that H-back type spot, playing all over the place.” Vitale said at the NFL Combine, comparing it somewhat to what he did in college. “It’s kind of moving towards that hybrid position, I think.”

Danny Vitale
Vitale posted the best times in five of seven drills at the NFL combine (Adam Rossow/MEDILL).

Last season, Vitale caught 33 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns for the Wildcats, all team highs. At the Senior Bowl, Vitale says, he also showed he could block some the country’s best linebacker prospects.

Senior Bowl scout Patrick Woo was impressed.

“He looked like the total package,” Woo said. “It was his first time really playing the traditional fullback position … and I thought Danny transitioned very well, and then he went off and continued his momentum with a solid NFL Combine performance, and he showed more athleticism and agility at his Pro Day than I think people thought he had.”

At February’s NFL Scouting Combine, Vitale was the strongest fullback in the bench press, the fastest in the 40-yard dash and the quickest in the 20-yard shuttle.

Howard Griffith, a former NFL running back and current college football analyst at the Big Ten Network, agreed that Vitale represents the total package.

“From what I’ve learned following his career, he’s going to do whatever he needs to do,” said Griffith. “It’ll take some time to become a traditional blocking fullback, to get that feel. But playing special teams will buy him some time, and then he can go out there and show that versatility.”

Lowry, Shuler also potential draft picks

Former Northwestern University defensive end Dean Lowry hopes he’ll be at least a late-round selection Saturday, Day 3 of the NFL Draft. If not, he’ll get training camp invitations, according to Big Ten Network football analyst Howard Griffith, a former Denver Broncos running back.

“He’s one of those 3-4 guys; he can play outside on the edge, or they can kick him inside and he can be the nose (tackle),” Griffith said. “When you play with the intensity he does, each and every down, it gives you a chance (in the NFL). He plays with outstanding leverage, understands how to use his hands, and so I like his versatility.”

Lowry, who recorded 13 tackles for a loss and three sacks his senior season, has worked out recently for the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts.

Lowry’s value has jumped in some mock drafts. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports has Lowry going to the Detroit Lions in the fifth round, while Pro Football Focus has him going to the Arizona Cardinals late in the third round.

Wide receiver Miles Shuler, another long-shot NFL prospect out of Northwestern, didn’t have a standout senior season, with 15 receptions for 149 yards and no touchdowns. But he ran a 4.40 40-yard-dash at Northwestern’s Pro Day on March 8 and could be another player who earns training camp invitations.

Photo at top: Danny Vitale works out with head trainer Tommy Christian at TCBOOST Sports Performance in Northbrook (Tolly Taylor/ Medill)