GREEN BAY – Danny Vitale felt an immediate rush of anticipation about Matt LaFleur’s offense as soon as the Packers’ fourth-year fullback turned on the film this spring.
Early in the offseason program, Vitale watched a highlight reel of two of his biggest idols at his position, Kyle Juszczyk and Patrick DiMarco, chewing up defenses in Kyle Shanahan’s offense through a blend of versatility and creativity.
LaFleur, Green Bay’s first-year head coach, rose up the NFL coaching ladder under Shanahan and his father, Mike, and has similar respect for the fullback position as his mentors, a reality that has Vitale excited for the possibilities.
“Looking at those teams, it’s a fullback’s dream,” Vitale said.
The inescapable truth of playing fullback in today’s NFL is one must be different to survive. Juszczyk and DiMarco have carved out lengthy careers at the game’s most volatile position with their ability to run, block, catch passes out of the backfield and play special teams.
Vitale looks to bring that same dimension to Green Bay, the place he’s called home since October. He played in five games for the Packers last season and is currently one of two fullbacks on the offseason roster with practice-squad holdover Malcolm Johnson.
Take a look at photos of Packers FB Danny Vitale from the 2018 season.
On paper, Vitale can do it all. The former Northwestern “Super back” was drafted in the sixth round by Cleveland in 2016 for that very reason after catching 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 TDs in four seasons with the Wildcats.
After having to play catch-up as an in-season signee last year, Vitale was able to learn at a more comfortable pace this spring. He took all the first-team reps at fullback in the practices open to the media and appears to possess a skill set that complements LaFleur’s vision of the offense.
“Working with Malcolm and working with Danny, they’ve seen the success that fullbacks have had in this system,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “Some of the best fullbacks in this league have played in this system. So they’re very excited about that. They’ve really taken to it.”
Both LaFleur and General Manager Brian Gutekunst championed the fullback position at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but also cautioned any fullback who aspires to make the final 53 come September must be the “right guy.”
Working in Vitale’s favor is his past experience with new special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga, for whom he played two seasons with the Browns. The two exchanged text messages and phone calls after Mennenga was hired in January.
Vitale was a four-core player for Cleveland and was even listed on the Pro Bowl ballot as a special-teamer for the Browns during his rookie campaign. That history in Mennenga’s scheme has expedited his transition this spring.
Offensively, Vitale knows what he’s up against but believes his position still has a lot to offer NFL teams willing to hold their ground and not give in to the shifting tide.
“It’s not just iso-blocks anymore,” Vitale said. “Just being able to see everything and move quick enough is a big deal now. Obviously throw in the routes and you can create mismatches, and nightmares for everybody out there. Having that versatility is just huge for the position. I think that’s the only way it’s going to stick around.”
Vitale certainly did his part in the weight room this offseason. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw out a few barbs this spring about Vitale’s notorious workout regimen, a habit he picked up in eighth grade that has developed into a passion over the years.
This year, Vitale split his training between Florida and his home state of Illinois. Along with his usual powerlifting routine, Vitale mixed in evening boxing, Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu sessions to improve his cardio during the first two months of the offseason.
At Ybor City Jiu-Jitsu in Tampa, Vitale had chance to spar with Bellator heavyweight Jake Hager, who performed as Jack Swagger in the WWE. He also trained with UFC 145-pounder Ricardo Lamas in Chicago before shifting his focus back to football drills in the lead-up to April’s offseason program.
“It can be very, very humbling, even sparring with somebody way smaller than you,” Vitale said. “That’s what I really liked about it from a mental aspect. You get so tired and you gotta keep fighting. You can’t quit or you’re just going to get your (butt) kicked.”
Vitale knows he won’t just be competing against Johnson for a roster spot once the team reports for training camp next month. Every day, it’s Vitale’s responsibility to prove he’s adapted his game as a fullback and belongs on the active roster.
If Vitale ever needs a reminder of what’s possible, he need only rewind the tape to see what Juszczyk and DiMarco have done.
“It opens up so many opportunities instead of just being a smashing fullback,” Vitale said. “You can bump out and run routes out of the backfield, anything really. The sky’s the limit in this offense for a fullback.”