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    Finding His Niche, And Quickly

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    Now his name is tied to that of the acclaimed Drake Dunsmore, the accomplished superback whose 'Cat career ended just a fall ago. Despite rumblings of this connection throughout the year, it was solidified one Saturday at Michigan State when true freshman Dan Vitale caught nine passes for 110 yards, running his rookie reception totals to 21 catches for 206 yards to outstrip Dunsmore's numbers (11 for 141) when he was so young. But, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to remind us, stats are for loser, so let us search elsewhere for links that bond this pair. "There's a lot of similarities," superbacks coach Bob Heffner helpfully says.

    "The main two things are what good people they are and how much they like playing football. Those are similarities right there. After that, yeah, there's some differences. Drake did certain things, Dan does certain things. But the bottom line is they have those two qualities, and if you get a good person and football is really important to him and he likes playing ball and likes being coached, then your job's pretty easy."

    "Yeah. Absolutely," Vitale will say when apprised of his coach's comment, and then he chuckles. "I'll try to put it in perspective here. For me, football is just the biggest thing, not the biggest thing, but it is one of the biggest things in my life. It's always been a big staple in my life ever since I was a little kid in second or third grade. I think I played my first year of football -- I want to say it was second grade, flag football. Not many kids have done that. It has just always been part of my life, I've always been into it and it's always been my dream to play in college.

    "I think that's the big thing. I just want to be the best player I can possibly be before my career is over and have that incredible season at some point in my life before it's all over."

    *****

    On offense, as a high school junior, he split time between tight end and wide receiver, and as a senior running back he rushed 276 times for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was also, through that time, an accomplished defensive back, and so Dan Vitale was much coveted when he showed up at the 'Cats' summer camp before his final year at Wheaton Warrenville South. He worked out there at linebacker and at running back and at superback as well, and, remembers Fitzgerald, "Randy Bates (the linebacker coach) really liked him and Bob Heffner really liked him. So we had a pretty long discussion as a staff before we presented to Dan and his family what our thought-process was. Obviously he was so talented with the ball in his hands that we felt that starting him out on offense would be the right thing to do to start his career."

    "He ran really fast at our camp, so of course I wanted him in my group," Heffner will say with a smile when asked about those discussions. "I knew that, obviously, we had a very good superback leaving here and when you get a guy who comes to your camp and runs real fast and had played the position in high school, I felt good about that. He knew how to play the position. He had running back skills and stuff. Then, just from being around him, he had bright eyes and he seemed like a wonderful young man and once you meet his family, he's from just great, great people. When you get that, you've got a great chance. So sure I wanted him."

    Do those discussions get heated, we wonder.

    "We talk it out and at the end it's Fitz's decision," says Heffner. "He's the director of player personnel no matter what anybody says. He's the one who made the call."

    And when he heard the call?

    "For me, the whole thing was just being able to play Big Ten football," says Vitale. "I was willing to play wherever they put me. I knew they'd find the best fit for me, and I think they definitely did that. I'm enjoying it a lot. I think I've found my niche."

    ******

    He came to Evanston in June, and all through the summer went though drills with the veterans. Quarterback Kain Colter was one of those he worked with, and so were the wide receivers Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones and Mike Jensen, and it was here that Dan Vitale's quick journey to Dunsmore comparisons began. "They watched film with us and tried to get us comfortable on how the offense is run, the tempo of the offense and everything like that," he will remember. "So I definitely felt I was a step ahead (when practice began in August), especially mentally. That was the biggest thing, being prepared mentally. I can get there physically. That's not the problem. It's having that mindset that you're ready to play. That really put me in that whole groove right away."

    "I think what he did, he learned a lot from the older guys during the summer when we're not allowed to be around, when the older kids do things on their own," echoes Heffner. "So when we went to camp, he knew a lot more of the basics of the offense than I thought he would. He had picked up quite a bit, and it's not like they have anything on paper or anything like that. He just picked it up. So I was pretty impressed at where he was, and then we started from square one and he got a full dose of it again from a coaching standpoint at camp. We had to work on technique, and focusing in on knowing every play, and the speed of how fast we run a play, and all those types of things."

    ******

    He was surely precocious. That was obvious back at Camp Kenosha to both Heffner and Fitzgerald. But Dan Vitale was still a true freshman and the offense confronting him was complex. This is why the 'Cats spoon-fed him, why the 'Cats early on asked him to take no more than baby steps. "We didn't try to overload him," is how Fitzgerald puts it, and then he adds this. "Bob Heffner's done a terrific job teaching Danny the offense and bringing him along."

    "We didn't want to put too much on him too fast," Heffner himself will say. "But then we tried to feed him a little more as the season's gone along, and he's responded well."

    And what prompted them to put more on his plate?

    "We watch in practice and see how he's making very few mistakes and he's getting the job done," says Heffner. "He's being productive. And the more productive you are, I don't care what position, the more can be put on your plate. It's been a process. But I think it's worked well because he's been there ready to go every time, and taken whatever each game plan gave him in stride."

    "Every week we're taking bigger steps," Vitale himself will later say. "I think I've been getting a lot more plays in these games lately. They've put a lot more on my plate every week. But I think they made the right decision, taking those baby steps and really just feeding it to me at a good pace."

    ******

    "I'm pleasantly surprised that he has been able to do as much as he's done. I think that's a credit to him," Heffner will finally say of his protogé. "Not only to what a good person he is. He's a good learner, and he likes playing ball. It's important to him and if you've got that, you look like a good coach when it's really the player. I was lucky to have that with Drake Dunsmore here. Drake loved playing ball, he was very smart and all I did was sit back and go over things that I could see on film with him."

    "He was a phenomenal player. You can't take that away from him," Vitale will say when asked how it feels to have his name tied to Dunsmore's. He pauses here and then, a heartbeat later, he concludes, "We both did our job. That's all you can ask of us. He has more catches than I do at this point. Hopefully, I'll get to his level. I don't feel I'm at his level yet and that's where I want to be.

    "Like I said, just try to become the best player I could ever possibly be. To at some point reach my maximum."

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