Fullbacks have been an endangered species for a long time now.
A third of the league didn’t have a fullback on the roster last season. For long stretches of the season, even the New Orleans Saints — a team that has traditionally carried a fullback under Sean Payton — was one of those teams, using tight ends in the role for the handful of snaps it was required.
Northwestern’s Dan Vitale said he believes he’s the evolutionary piece that can keep fullbacks from ever reaching extinction.
“I’m moving toward the new route, which is kind of that H-back type spot, playing all over the place: the second tight end, in college I played a little in the slot, a lot of times on the wing, being able to play a traditional fullback as well,” Vitale said.
Northwestern had its own term for Vitale’s role, the kind of term it’d be easy to see on a theater marquee as one of DC or Marvel’s comic-book tentpoles this summer.
The Wildcats called Vitale a “superback,” lined him up all over the offense and made him a focal point of the passing game.
Vitale caught 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career, including a team-leading 33 receptions for 355 yards and four scores in a heavily run-oriented offense last fall.
“The versatility is definitely important,” Vitale said. “You’ve got to be able to do a lot of things.”
Vitale is ideally suited for a hybrid role because he’s far more athletic than the typical bruising, sledgehammer fullback.
Measured at 6-foot-1, 239 pounds at the NFL scouting combine, Vitale ripped off a 4.60-second 40-yard dash, had 30 repetitions on the bench press and finished among the top three running backs — not just fullbacks — in the vertical jump (38.5 inches), 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.36 seconds).
Athletically, those numbers would be impressive if Vitale was a 220-pound running back or a 250-pound tight end. A guy who can move like that projects nicely as a receiving weapon.
Or not. When Vitale arrived in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl in January, he realized that most teams wanted to see him prove he could handle the blocking required of the position.
“No one was ever worried about the production or anything like that,” Vitale said. “They could see that I had good hands. … So everyone knew I could catch. They just wanted to see me step, dip and strike somebody, stuff like that.”
Vitale said he believes his eye-popping physical testing proves he can be a battering ram, too.
“I want to show them that I have the power and strength to do that in the first place,” Vitale said before his combine testing. “Obviously, I’m not going to be hitting anybody. But if they can see that explosion and that hip snap … they’ll know I’m generating force and I’m able to do that physically.”
A team like the Saints, a team that’s already deep at tight end, might not need another player at the position.
Then again, Vitale’s the kind of versatile player who could add an unorthodox weapon to a diverse passing game.
No matter what his position is called.
“It doesn’t really matter to me, honestly,” Vitale said. “From here on out, whether I am a fullback or I am an H-back or whatever it is, I’m going to try to become the best all-around player I can.”