One of the great things about internet acccess to recruiting developments is that over time they give you a sense of where your favorite college team is headed relative to the competition. Now in NU’s case, the “competition” goes well beyond other Big Ten teams because it is often ACC, Pac-12 and Big XII programs that Fitz and his staff are recruiting against for coveted players. So while we all like to beat the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and MSU for football recruits, beating BC is at least as relevant in assessing the direction of the NU football program. And as we dive into BC week, it’s great to see that more and more top prospects are viewing NU as the better choice to play football and get their education. Indeed, with the recent committment of DT Greg Kuhar from Lakewood, OH St. Ed’s, we can add another coveted recruit to the fold who fits the emerging mold of future Wildcat stars. Greg had a number of options heading into his senior season, including three schools the ‘Cats love to beat for top prospects … BC, Iowa and Stanford.
Our ability to beat BC for high quality football prospects is a relatively new development. As recently as 2008, local Illinois prospects like OL Emmet Cleary (St. Viator) and LB Nick Clancy (Joliet Catholic) spurned the ‘Cats in favor of BC. And we’ll see both those players in the Eagles lineup on Saturday. Other NU recruiting targets followed suit in 2008. TE Chris Pantale out of New Jersey stayed closer to home and signed with the Eagles over NU and numerous other BCS programs. He too will play on Saturday. And we may also see 2010 TB Rolandan Finch toting the ball, given the rash of injuries BC has absorbed at the TB position. Finch too could have been a Wildcat, but chose BC instead. On the flip side, WR Charles Brown, DB Ibraheim Campbell, SB Jack Konopka and DE Quentin Williams will all likely play for the ‘Cats on Saturday, and all of them had to say “no” to BC to be wearing our school colors.
Last year was a key year in comparing NU’s football recruiting to what at that time had to be considered a more established BC football program. Still, the chinks in the BC golden helmets were beginning to take their toll. At the end of the 2006 season, head coach Tom O’Brien (current NC State head coach) voluntarily quit to take over another program within the same conference. Enter Jeff Jagodzinski in 2007 when the Eagles were ranked as high as No.2 in the country behind All American QB Matt Ryan. But that didn’t last long when Coach “Jag” was abruptly fired after the 2008 season for “exploring” other coaching opportunities. Now the Eagles begin their 3rd season under the direction of Frank Spaziani. He has guided BC to a relatively mediocre 15-11 overall record in his first two seasons punctuated by back-to-back losses in the Emerald City Bowl. All told, the coaching turnover and record decline go hand in hand as does the player turnover (BC’s player attrition rate is very high in the last 3-5 years) and the slide in BC’s recruiting stature. Enter Northwestern, with its comparative stability and upward trajectory, to fill the gap for those players looking for a big city, big conference, student athlete experience.
Beginning in 2010 and every recruiting season since, I think it’s fair to say that Fitz has dominated Frank Spaziani in the recruiting circles they keep. Sophomore DBs I. Campbell and J. Hall both chose the ‘Cats over BC, and the fact they come from Ohio and Pennsylvania adds value to those “gets”. Both of those states are key NU recruiting grounds, and they have historically been far kinder to the Eagles than to the ‘Cats in head to head battles. Then we turn to 2011, and we see Fitz protecting his home turf with the signing of Jack Konopka and Jerrell Williams from Illinois, both of whom said no to Boston College. And perhaps more importantly, we see Fitz and assistant coach Bob Heffner going into a BC recruiting stronghold – New Jersey – and taking OT Shane Mertz, a huge “get”. And it gets better. The 2012 class again shows that NU can take down the Eagles in Ohio and Pennsylvania recruiting battles as Keystone state OL Adam DePietro and Buckeye state DT Greg Kuhar both spurned BC in favor of NU. The icing on the cake? 2012 commit OT Eric Olson pulls a 2008 Emmet Cleary move by looking right past his home state (Massachusetts) school on his way to committing to the Wildcats. Thank you Mr. Olson. Other top East coast prospects, including 4 star LBs Abner Logan from Massachusetts and Quanzell Lambert from New Jersey have stood up and taken notice. They too have the ‘Cats on their short lists of favorites.
The recruiting battles with BC aren’t over, that’s for sure. One geographic area where BC has had a decided recruiting advantage over NU is in Florida. And that remains true today. So it will be interesting to see how the recruitment of Ft. Lauderdale area star RB/S Traveon Henry ends up. The kid fits the mold of the modern day NU football recruit. He’s smart, skilled and can play with the big boys both on the field and in the classroom. If he doesn’t choose his home state FSU Seminoles, look for his recruitment to come down to a NU vs. BC battle. Beat BC this Saturday, and land a prospect of Henry’s stature out south Florida, and you can be assured that NU will have taken yet more ground from BC in the critical recruiting wars of the future.
By the way, a lot of the success the ‘Cats have experienced under Coach Fitz, and which is directly responsible for the improved recruiting, was made possible by less publicized recruits that worked their behinds off to become great college football players. That’s why a special LTP style “shout out” goes out to Jaylen Prater, the 15th and newest member of the 2012 recruiting class. Jaylen is a small school phenom who has played numerous different positions for his Wellston, OH HS team and projects to play LB for the Cats. He reminds me of the last undersized, small school Ohio HS LB to get overlooked by the Buckeyes and others. That was Chris Borland out of Alter HS in Dayton. And we all know how well he did at Wisconsin last year. Kudos to Jaylen for thinking big and for the ‘Cats in recognizing Jaylen’s talents.