Yesterday’s news that 4-star “athlete” Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio) committed to Northwestern sent a solid spike of giddy to those of us that keep up with Northwestern football recruiting. Candidly, any recruit committing to Northwestern sends a shot of dopamine to me, as the uncertainty of predicting future on-field success is so random I convince myself every time that THIS kid is going to be a star.
You can’t read about a potential Northwestern recruit not mentioning ALL of the following things – top-notch academics, the family fit, the 10-win season and the facilities. We, the veteran fan base, are all too sensitive to past perceptions of NU, that have taken literally decades to move the needle towards respect from other fan bases. Well, we may very well be entering the age of breaking through the recruiting perception wall as well.
One of the great annual mysteries among Northwestern fans who track recruiting is the total number of scholarships. Fitz, in a recent entertaining interview that I call “Exhibit A” as his maturation as a public speaker, specifically addressed the scholarship head count. We have 15 scholarships for the class of 2014 and only 16 for the class of 2015 and then 17 the next year. By now you’ve realized the math doesn’t add up as 85 scholarships for a program divided by four is approximately 21 per year. Fitz has fully converted his recruiting strategy to be spread over a five year class. He’s been unapologetic about his desire to redshirt (have a player not play for one year, and then retain four years of eligibility) as many freshmen as possible. He’s also admitted the best players will play regardless of their experience (a marked difference from the earlier part of his career when he seemed to put a heavy emphasis on seniority). The reason the above matters is that recruiting services like Rivals and Scout, rank recruiting classes with a series of metrics, one of which painfully includes total number of commitments. An FBS team can sign up to 28 players in one year, but can offer no more than 25 scholarships in a given year (SEC teams are often guilty of what is called oversigning, which is offering more than 25 scholarships knowing that they have less than said spots available and will either force out existing players and/or find creative ways to rescind said scholarships). This is a way-too-long build-up to the fact that despite the fact NU’s recruiting approach doesn’t play well with the rankings system, Northwestern has cracked the Top 20 rankings for the 2014 (checking in at #19) class from both Rivals and 247 Sports, two of the three heavyweights in recruiting.
Fitz has secured seven of the 15 potential slots for 2014. He’s very likely going to be past 50% of a secured class by Memorial Day, and if form holds, he’ll have all but two or three slots filled by the first game of the 2013 season. But, that is only part of the story. Traditionally, regardless of the star power of a particular recruiting class, Northwestern fans will tell you that the ‘Cats would get slighted by past perception. Rarely has NU’s class been ranked above the bottom 25% of the B1G. We seem permanently treading around 8th or 9th in terms of Signing Day rankings. This is where we fans get testy. A Northwestern recruit commits to say, Notre Dame or Michigan, and their respective star rating magically improves. I don’t have specific results to the opposite happening, but the perception is it does. That’s changing.
This past weekend Tommy Doles, an offensive lineman from Grand Rapids (Christian), Michigan chose Northwestern over Michigan. Word in recruiting circles was that he was leaning towards Ann Arbor throughout his search. Now a Michigan fan will be quick to point out that the recent signing of two other offensive linemen likely meant Michigan was cooling off on their pursuit. Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com asked about this directly to Tommy in a recent interview. Not so. Doles cited the family fit along with the academics as the 1-2 combo that sold him over Michigan. I continue to read how recruits are impressed that they can’t tell a scholarship player from a walk-on because everyone is treated the same and the character of the guys on the team is the biggest selling point. I love that.
The ultimate compliment in recruiting is when your opponents stand-up and take notice. Take for instance the granddaddy of ‘em all blogs, Michigan blog, MGoBlog, the gold standard in our industry. MGoBlog’s Ace recently wrote:
“It’s been a quiet week, relatively speaking for Michigan recruiting, so today’s roundup kicks off with an update on the program making a serious run for the #3 spot in the Big Ten recruiting rankings:
Yes, you read that right.
No, seriously, you read that right. – MGoBlog, May 6, 2013
“Ace” goes on to write about the solid 2013 class we built specifically citing consensus 4-star QB Matt Alviti and the geographic diversity of our 3-star talent while calling out our success in California (3), Texas (3), Florida and New Jersey. Ace then gets pumped about our mojo:
…the Wildcats have already hauled in another four-star signal caller, Clayton Thorson giving Northwestern future four-star depth at quarterback, a position where they’ve already managed to turn an array of middling recruits with varying levels of scrambling ability in to competent (at the very least) conductors of their up-tempo spread in recent years. Now the Wildcats have jumped up to 19th (!) in the 247 Sports composite team rankings after reeling in MI OL Tommy Doles and OH ATH Dareian Watkins in the last week. – MGoBlog, May 6, 2013
Possibly the best line of the entire post though, came from a culled comment from a Michigan State site in response to Sparty losing out to Northwestern on Dareian Watkins:
I find it funny that people would think we have such a clear advantage over NW (sic). At least they’ve been to a Rose Bowl since I’ve been out of diapers.
Beating out Michigan State is nothing new. Granted, they’ve beaten us head to head on several recruits in recent years, but look no further than Tony Jones and Paul Jorgensen, two upper classmen who we nabbed from Sparty’s backyard four years ago. Watkins, however, chose NU over Wisconsin, Penn State, Sparty, Louisville and a host of other schools. You know my penchant for converting “chose Northwestern over….” In to street cred.
If you’re looking for further recruiting validation among our enemies, errr, peers, then look no further than Illinois blog, The Champaign Room. Yesterday, he posted this sarcastic and in my opinion, hilarious tweet:
It’s not the 4-star player choosing NU over Illinois that worries me. It’s the 4-star player choosing NU over all those other schools.
— TheChampaignRoom.com (@Champaign_Room) May 6, 2013
The great news for Northwestern fans is the recruiting mojo is just kicking in to high gear. The fewer spots left to fill, the more selective Northwestern can be AND use the scarcity of space as a leverage tool. While Fitz is highly ethical in his recruiting tactics, he’s no dummy when it comes to negotiation. “We’ve got three spots left and we are down to six players, the first three in are going to get it” type of approach is completely fair and extremely compelling. With a Top 20 ranking in recruiting, and more importantly a preseason Top 20 ranking there is no denying the arrow is way up in Evanston.
Louie Vaccher fired me up with his recent interview with Glenbard North (Carol Stream) High School star RB Justin Jackson. Jackson, a 4-star 6-1 back who earned the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012 as a junior, told Vaccher that Northwestern is his clear #1 at this point. Jackson admitted that both Vanderbilt and Iowa are next on the ladder for his services with a laundry list of name schools still in the mix. For those of you living outside of the Chicago area, I can’t remember one week last year when Jackson wasn’t highlighted in the Tribune and Sun-Times for putting up video game-like stats. Like Alviti, he’d be a huge star-powered get among the local high school crowd.
Brian Bennett’s recent ESPN.com B1G Power Rankings had Northwestern at #3 behind Ohio State and Michigan. Now, several services have us a #3 in the B1G recruiting rankings. It’s a special time for Northwestern football as we start to hurdle historical perceptions. Yet, a reminder, it is only spring. Make or break time comes this fall. Should we contend for a trip to Indianapolis, we could very well be earning a ticket to the conference’s upper tier in both on-field and recruiting rankings.
LTP Purple Pledge
Thanks to Blaine Cressman, we’ve moved the needle four tickets towards our goal of 200 NEW season tickets. Blaine added four season tickets and puts us at 77 year to date. Yesterday’s news that Syracuse (5pm ct) and Western Michigan (8 pm ct) are giving shape to our home schedule which has three of the first four home games under the lights. This is yet ANOTHER reason that 2013 should be the easiest NEW season ticket sell since 1996. Great schedule. Few kiddie conflict times. Tremendous value. Let’s start banging that drum folks. We’ve got about 60 more people to convince (averaging 2 season tickets per). A Top 20 program. A Top 20 home schedule. A Top 20 recruiting class. Call 888-Go-Purple and then email me at email@example.com and we’ll give you a shout out. Well done Blaine!
Guys like Tommy Doles chose NU over Michigan DESPITE the gameday atmosphere. Doles visited the Big House several times, yet Northwestern, home to empty seats and a way too large visiting fan base each week, continues to compete with the programs that pack their stadiums. Fitz has said that creating the home field advantage with all purple packed in to Ryan Field is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for us to get to where we need to be. Step up folks!