Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the 197th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Northwestern's Dan Vitale played a wildly versatile role in the Wildcat offense. Combining pieces of the job descriptions usually assigned to wide receivers, tight ends and fullbacks, Vitale's position in Northwestern's attack was known as the "superback." There were four other Wildcats on the depth chart with that designation last year, and the position was first mastered at NU near the end of the Aughts by Drake Dunsmore, coincidentally a Buccaneer draft pick in 2012.
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The Buccaneers hope to employ some of that same varied skill set and experience to their offense in the years to come, but they won't be adopting the superback term. Called a fullback on draft weekend, Vitale is now listed as a tight end on the Buccaneers' roster, but he threw out an old football term last weekend that might be very appropriate.
"I think I can be used in a lot of different situations," said Vitale after his first NFL practice during the Bucs' rookie mini-camp. "Flexed out of the backfield a bunch of times and then in the backfield as well – kind of like a wing/flanker type of guy, so I’m just looking forward to the opportunity."
The term "flanker" is still heard fairly often around the NFL as a synonym for the "Z" receiver position that is usually a bit off the line of scrimmage and is sometimes sent in motion. However, you won't hear the word "wingback" on many NFL broadcasts these days. Those familiar with football history are most likely to use it in order to evoke memories of players like Johnny Rodgers, the Heisman Trophy winner at Nebraska in 1972.
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Though the term wingback originated out of arcane offensive formations like the single-wing, today it is used to describe a hybrid role like the one Vitale is projected to play for the Buccaneers. He will be asked to block quite a bit, either in the backfield or on the line like a tight end, but he can also line up in the slot. He will surely be put in motion at times, and he will be a threat to go out for a pass from anywhere he lines up.
Unlike "wingback," the position that Vitale was listed at on draft weekend is still found on the depth charts of most NFL teams. However, true fullbacks have become increasingly rare in the league and those teams that do carry them don't put them on the field for as many snaps as they used to. Jorvorskie Lane was the lone fullback in Dirk Koetter's offense last year, and he played in every game, but he was only in for 19% of the team's offensive snaps. The term may simply not be broad enough to describe what players of Vitale's dimensions and abilities are asked to do in today's game. Ironically, the previously outdated term of wingback might be just right.
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"I think football is kind of moving towards this ‘hybrid-style’ of football," said Vitale. "I wouldn’t say [the fullback position is] dying, I would say it’s transitioning to more of this H-back position that I think I’ll be playing a lot of here. It’s exciting to see. Obviously I’m happy about it because that’s what I played in college, so it just makes this transition a lot easier."
Indeed, Vitale will likely be referred to as an H-back quite often on those aforementioned NFL broadcasts, as that generally denotes a tight end who lines up a bit back from the line of scrimmage and has some of the same responsibilities described above. The H-back often goes in motion, has to block a lot but is still a threat to break out in a pass route. Vitale's role might end up a little more complex than that. For now, we know the general idea of what the Buccaneers think they can do with their newest offensive weapon; we won't know the specifics until Dirk Koetter unleashes his playbook in September. And, of course, the idea will be to keep opposing defenses guessing from game to game and from play to play. That's the power of a versatile offensive position, like that of a tight end but with even more possibilities.
Whatever the Buccaneers or broadcasters choose to call his position, Vitale is simply pleased to be able to continue doing much of what he did during his successful days at Northwestern.
"I think I actually fell into a great situation in terms of that," he said. "I did this pretty much in college. I kind of played in the slot, I kind of played tight end, a little bit of fullback, so I think the biggest transition is going to be that fullback spot when they do need it. But I’m not worried about it. I think just using my athleticism I’ll be able to figure it out."