Vitale, specifically, has been a fixture on offense throughout the offseason program and first nine practices of training camp. The 6-foot, 239-pound fullback has even stepped in as a third-down back in two-minute periods, with Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones currently nursing hamstring injuries.
The truth is Vitale has always been more “athlete” than “fullback.” Labeled a “Superback” at Northwestern, Vitale ran a marathon motioning across the offensive front on his way to 135 catches for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with the Wildcats.
It really wasn’t until his two-year stint in Cleveland that Vitale was asked to play more traditional hand-in-the-dirt fullback. Entering his second year in Green Bay, he feels his skills mesh perfectly with what LaFleur’s scheme emphasizes.
Vitale already has hauled in several passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers this camp, including at least one downfield reception in each of the last three practices.
“That’s definitely my more natural skill set being able to obviously catch the ball and run routes, be an athlete,” Vitale said. “That part of it has always been easy to me. When I got into the league, I had to learn to be that hand-in-the-dirt fullback and go smash faces. Now, it’s nice that I know how to do that but I also get to go back to that secondhand nature of my game.”
Only a handful of teams currently feature the fullback, but that small fraternity has produced several of the league’s most innovative and unpredictable offenses.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, a close friend and former colleague of LaFleur, has set the blueprint for how effective a fullback can be in today’s NFL, with three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Juszczyk, who played more than 60 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps in 2018.
Four other offenses – New England (James Develin), New Orleans (Zach Line), Atlanta (Ricky Ortiz) and the Los Angeles Chargers (Derek Watt) – also were among the league’s top units last season, utilizing schemes favorable to the fullback.