Madison's Vitale worked his way into special teams role at UConn
There might have been some raised eyebrows even in his football-crazy hometown of Madison when Nick Vitale bid adieu to Stony Brook and headed to UConn with no scholarship, no guarantee that he would ever play a meaningful snap of football for his home-state Huskies.
Vitale, undeterred by the naysayers, showed up every day with the same will to succeed that made his father one of the most productive linebackers in Connecticut high school history and enabled his older brother to play 47 career games at Stony Brook.
There are walk-ons who drew praise from their coaches for what they brought to the table and never came close to being thrown into the fray regardless of how hard they worked. Yet, when the Huskies play at Cincinnati on Saturday, the former Hand High star will not only be on the kickoff coverage unit as he has been in every game this season but it is rather likely he will be the Huskies' primary punt returner.
"When I left Stony Brook, I knew what I was walking into," Vitale said after Tuesday's practice.
Vitale came to UConn following an impressive run as a receiver at Hand highlighted by catching 11 touchdown passes as a senior. When Bob Diaco arrived on the scene stating his preference for tall, rangy receivers it seemed unlikely that the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Vitale would be hauling in passes any time in his time at UConn. When he was moved over to cornerback, there were no complaints. If moving to defense would give him a better chance to see the field, Vitale was fine with that.
"It is not about the money, it is about the love of the spot," Vitale said. "For me, I am an undersized guy so I come out every day and if you work hard, it pays off. I am playing."
Vitale made two solo tackles late in UConn's 40-13 win at Central Florida earlier this month. He even had his first punt return even if his two-yard return wasn't exactly what the coaches were expecting to see from him.
"I said to him 'you know we are in punt safe so nobody is actually blocking for you, right? You need to fair catch it," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "But he just got so excited.
"He's a Connecticut guy, tough, hard-nosed young man, constantly straining and everything is a strain. He has to pay his own way, his family fights the fight and they are great people, they all kind of circled the wagons to help Nick create his personal goals, he is just a great teammate - I love being on a team with Nick. I have every confidence with him in there at corner, I have every confidence with him in there at punt returner."
With starting punt returner Brian Lemelle dealing with a lower-body issue that Diaco said going "is to prevent him from participating for an undisclosed period of time" Vitale could have a chance to add to his punt return yardage total.
"It is Brian's spot and I am just filling in, doing what I can to make it work and just helping my team," Vitale said.
"I was an offensive player and I really haven't touched the ball since high school so it is going to be exciting to see what I can do when I get the ball."
Vitale certainly has the backing of his teammates if he is called upon to field punts.
"It's been a long road and a hard road for Nick but it really is all paying off now," said UConn junior linebacker Matt Walsh, who was Vitale's teammate at Hand High. "He is able to field some punts and play on the kickoff return team and he is really becoming a reliable special teams player for us. I believe in him and so does everybody else on the team.
"He's earned everybody's respect on the team, keeping his head down and working hard every day. He doesn't say much, he just works hard. He really shows his character in his actions and not really his words because everything he does every day resembles who he is."
Just who is Vitale? Part of a football-playing family is certainly a major part of his makeup.
"It is just following in the footsteps of my family. We are all natural football players so we come out to do what we do and just play," Vitale said.
Fielding punts has not been a strength of the 2015 UConn team. Lemelle let one of the punts bounce and roll an additional 29 yards in last year's loss to South Florida. His teammates are fairly certain that Vitale will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening against the Bearcats.
"Nick Vitale, I love him back there," UConn junior kicker Bobby Puyol said. "He is very aggressive, he wants it really bad and he wants the ball. I am excited, he will do very well.
"I have become good friends with Nick since he has been here. The whole kick squad loves to see Nick out there. He transferred in, he came in as a walk-on and to have that as your punt returner, I feel like that is awesome."
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