Back in February, Northwestern fans were excited for the program’s future. For yet another year, Pat Fitzgerald was being heralded for bringing in a strong recruiting class by those outside the program. The treasure was Ifeadi Odenigbo, a four-star linebacker from Ohio who had several major programs calling for his services for the next four-plus years.
Fitzgerald will tell you all those recruiting rankings are meaningless. Football is not played on paper and cannot be projected four years into the future. If that were the case, Dan Persa would never have been #PersaStrong and Kain Colter would have been abandoned because of an injury his junior year that saw several programs abandon their recruitment of him. The Wildcats take pride in being able to find diamonds in the rough and finding fits for their program rather than simply amassing talent.
Those lofty ideals are nice in the offseason. But with the accolades of bringing in more recognized talent comes the expectation of performance. Nobody is satisfied with a 6-7 record and another bowl loss. This program wants more and that is certainly fed by a group of young players who want to make that history.
The beginning of the season is always the time to start proving the paper analysts right or wrong, whatever the case may be. That may not be more important in Northwestern history than it is right now. The Wildcats, as mentioned over and over again, have made strong gains in recruiting but have yet to see that translate on the field. Yes, Northwestern is in an unprecedented era of winning — going to its fourth straight bowl game last year and expecting a fifth this year — but the team’s record is not improving drastically and that bowl drought still exists.
Everyone surrounding the program wants more.
It is unfair to put this kind of pressure on freshmen and redshirt freshmen like heralded linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, offensive lineman Adam DePietro, defensive lineman Deonte Gibson, safety Traveon Henry, defensive lineman Greg Kuhar, offensive lineman Ian Park, defensive back Nick VanHoose and superback Dan Vitale are projected to make an impact their first years of eligibility. VanHoose is projected to start int he secondary and many suspect Odenigbo and Gibson will rotate in with the defense and DePietro will be part of the offensive line rotation.
There will be lots of fresh faces on the field when Northwestern opens things up in New York about a month from now. And whoever comes on the field will be expected to perform at a high level.
There have been plenty of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who have stepped on the field. Each time, Fitzgerald only threw them into the fire if they earned the position on the practice fields and if they are truly ready. Most famously, Ibraheim Campbell was thrown directly into the fire last year as the team’s starting safety opposite Brian Peters. Tony Jones and Christian Jones saw ample playing time last year as freshmen as did Jack Konopka at super back.
Fitzgerald is not afraid to play his least “experienced” players. Experience does not really mean anything if you don’t apply it properly. For prognosticators and analysts, it is just a base of reference to predict future results.
There is some mystery on how these young players will respond to the rigors of college football and the pressure that comes with it. Some of the players will be ready immediately, some will need acclimating. Fitzgerald and his coaching staff should be able to get many ready to play and contribute at some point this year. We do not yet know which ones will step up.
That is one of the reasons it is so hard to rely on freshmen, no matter how talented or highly touted they may be. But rest assured there will be new faces to surprise us throughout the year and even at the beginning of the season.
We will begin to find out who takes that step when practice opens Monday.