Chicago Colleges: Jayme Taylor

Wildcats offense aims to make waves again

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:30
AM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally helping and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."
That Dan Vitale bears a slight resemblance to Superman -- you be the judge -- and plays the superback position for Northwestern suggests he possesses hidden heroic qualities.

There's no doubt Vitale is a multitalented individual. The junior can catch (62 receptions in his first two seasons), line up in the backfield, occasionally run the ball and consistently block. At 6-2 and 237 pounds, Vitale has a unique size/speed/strength mix. He played running back in high school but, depending on the recruiting outlet, projected as a wide receiver and a safety at the college level. He's an academic All-Big Ten selection who serves on the team's leadership council.

[+] EnlargeDan Vitale
Reid Compton/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern's Dan Vitale tried to do too much last fall, and it hurt his overall production.
Oh, and he also can sing a bit, too (go to the 37-second mark).

Northwestern's superback position -- part tight end, part fullback -- seems to offer Vitale the type of blank canvas he needs. But in 2013, he spent too much time on the concept and not enough on the actual painting.

"I wanted to do big things but thought about it too much," Vitale recently told ESPN.com. "I just need to come out there and react more and be a smarter player subconsciously. I'm an older guy now, so I should know what I'm doing out there on the field.

"Don't overthink and make big plays."

Vitale's production wasn't awful in 2013. He finished third on the team in both receptions (34) and touchdown catches (3), and added four rushes for 27 yards. He had nice performances against Cal (five receptions, 101 yards) and Michigan State (five catches, 58 yards). But the surge many expected after Vitale's strong finish to his freshman season -- he was one of only four true freshmen to see the field in 2012 -- didn't come on a consistent basis.

Arguably his most notable moment was a notorious one: an illegal block late in the fourth quarter of a tie game against Iowa. It nullified a Kain Colter run that had put Northwestern well into field-goal range. The Wildcats went on to lose in overtime.

Vitale felt ready for an increased workload -- he went from logging about 20 plays per game as a freshman to more than 60 last fall -- but he became too cerebral, especially during the team's seven-game Big Ten losing streak.

"That's on us as coaches as much as anything," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Maybe he pressed a little too much and tried to make too many big plays."

Asked about the roles Vitale can fill for the Wildcats offense, Fitzgerald laughed and replied: "A lot of them." But he adds that the coaches must be sensitive about putting too much on Vitale's plate this season.

"Not that he can't learn it, he will," Fitzgerald said, "but we can't have him out there thinking."

Fitzgerald likes Vitale's mind-set so far this spring. Vitale had a good winter, elevating his max bench-press by 10-15 pounds and bulking up. He's more familiar with a starter's workload and has a good connection with Trevor Siemian, likely the team's top quarterback.

Northwestern also has more options at superback to spell Vitale or pair with him in different formations. Redshirt freshman Jayme Taylor has emerged this spring, Mark Szott provides experience and ESPN 300 recruit Garrett Dickerson arrives in the summer.

Vitale knows he can't be Superman at the superback spot, but his goals remain high.

"I want to earn the trust of the QBs," he said. "I've got to get my hands locked in, catch everything and get my blocking to where I want it to be.

"I want to be one of the biggest playmakers on the team."

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