The Next Level of Recruiting

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 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.

OL Tommy Doles chose NU over Michigan this past weekend
OL Tommy Doles chose NU over Michigan this past weekend

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:

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 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 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!


  • CatAlum06

    This is a great post. You have to believe the larger trends in football concerning head injuries will nudge many parents in the Northwestern camp that may not have been there 5 years ago. I think there’s no better selling tool than guys like Jason Wright and Napoleon Harris- what did they do after playing in the NFL? Oh, one’s now at a premier business school, and the other is a state senator. How could any parent not want that for their son?

    • sailingcat

      If you’re in Chicago, keep an eye out for a Northwestern Alumni Club of Chicago event coming up in July with Senator Harris!

  • MF

    Great post today, LTP. You were on fire for this one: If this were a basketball court, you just got every offensive rebound and hit every shot.

    • Wow..high praise from someone with a high bar. Thanks for the props. I know we both see eye to eye on the marketing value of being in the final consideration set for high profile talent. I didn’t even touch on hoops recruiting today, which is clearly seeing an uptick in this consideration set by an elite group of Chicagoans.

  • cece

    we all owe it to Fitz and Co. to make sure all of our season tix are used by us or by other purple wearing fans. Go ‘Cats! great post, LTP.

  • Scott

    Indeed, a great post, LTP. But I have a question, one asked simply out of a lack of understanding about the recruiting process. Fitz has only 15 scholarships to give, and half of those are now spoken for. Clearly, he must have scores of other offers out there. So what happens if ten guys, none of them named Justin Jackson, call Fitz between now and Memorial Day and say, I’ll take the scholarship to NU? Is it first come, first served? Does Fitz say, call back in five months? Again, this question is asked not with any particular agenda in mind, but just out of curiosity and lack of knowledge. Thanks.

    • My understanding is that it is first come first serve. It usually happens by position. For example, Clayton Thorson…you’re one of three QBs were looking at and we’re only looking at you three…we’ve got room for two. It’s first come first serve. That type of thing.

    • Chasmo

      An excellent question and one that’s new to Northwestern football. So let’s imagine this scenario:
      NU wants to sign one more defensive end and a five star kid tells Fitz he is a heavy lean to NU but he says his parents insist that he visit all his top choices before he makes a final commitment and he won’t be able to accomplish that until July 1. He ask Fitz to wait.
      Meanwhile, the defensive end with the least amount of potential in the eyes of the coaching staff calls this week and wants to commit.
      Does NU really give that scholarship to the least talented defensive end they’ve offered because its policy is “first come, first served”?
      If that’s the policy, it will have to change if NU really wants to recruit highly rated kids who are being heavily recruited because those kids really do owe it to themselves to at least check out all their options before committing. It’s easy to pick NU over MAC schools. But it’s not as easy to pick NU over, let’s say, Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Boston College without really exploring one’s options first.

      • Richard

        However, unlike some other schools, Fitz also doesn’t oversign and doesn’t rescind commitments (unless the kid starts looking around again).

        Plus, who’s to say that the 3-star kid who really wants to be at NU won’t turn out better than the 5-star who’s courted everywhere & may have gotten a big head?

        • Chasmo

          Recruiting rankings are no guarantees of success but I’d like to make a proposition to all those who say things like — “who’s to say that the 3-star kid who really wants to be at NU won’t turn out better than the 5-star?”
          One person picks 10 two-star kids and 10 three-star kids from the Class of 2013. The other picks 10 four-star and 10 five star kids.
          In four years, roster of 20 fours and fives will be checked to see how many all-conference selections they earned and the roster of twos and threes will be checked for the same achievement level.
          The loser pays the winner $10,000.
          Would anyone promoting the worth of twos and threes over fours and fives accept that wager?
          Despite our pooh-poohing of recruiting rankings and pointing to exceptions to the rule (the All-America who was once a one-star walk-on!), the odds are that a randomly selected group four and five star kids will produce more good college players than a randomly selected group of two and three star kids.

          • Richard

            Except that these aren’t random.

            The comparison isn’t with the universe of 3-stars vs. the universe of 4-stars (I’m leaving out 5-stars because NU pretty much can’t compete for any right now), but the universe of 3-stars who really love NU vs. 4-stars who don’t as much.

            It’s a fact that NU is one of the few programs in the whole country who have consistently done better than their recruiting rankings say they should. Have you wondered why? Maybe there are some “hidden” benefits to taking kids who really want to be Wildcats.

          • Chasmo

            See above.

          • gocatsgo2003

            People who say that like, I don’t know, Pat Fitzgerald?
            The Northwestern evaluation goes far beyond rankings, offers, etc. in order to identify players willing and able to do the work on and off the field to succeed at Northwestern, which cannot be discounted.

          • Chasmo

            Have you noticed what has happened in the past two decades whenever NU faces a team filled with superior athletes?
            Fitz likes to talk about competing for a national title but that won’t happen with a roster full of hard-working, good character, two and three star players.
            Stanford is the superior program to NU now because it’s been able to sign four and five star players. NU must do the same if it wants to win a national title as Fitz claims to want to do. And that might mean waiting a little while for a superstar recruit to make up his mind.

          • Richard

            See above.

            I think you’re deluding yourself if you think that if Fitz was less principled, NU would magically recruit like a power program.

            Also, unlike you, I don’t think the coaches are so stupid that they would fill up their slots with inferior players when they can get better players. Didn’t we have 1-2 slots open until signing day pretty much every year?

            Finally, do you realize that NU landed 2 of the biggest playmakers on our team now (Colter and Christian Jones) because NU coaches stayed principled and committed when other schools became cool after those 2 were injured?

            There’s something to be said for having principles, and I’ve only seen evidence of the Fitz way helping NU in recruiting rather than hurting us.

      • gocatsgo2003

        In short, yes, they will give the scholarship to the lesser-talented individual. Once FItz and staff decide to offer a kid, they don’t go back on it (unless the prospect’s academics or behavior changes, or they run out of scholarships at that position). It’s yet another reason Fitz says he will be “a day late rather than a day early” in offering — once they make the offer, it isn’t getting rescinded and they live with whichever prospect(s) decide to commit.

        • Chasmo

          If that’s the policy, especially with NU having such small recruiting classes the next few years, it probably will result over the years in the Cats losing a few really highly rated kids who have a lot of good options to explore simply because NU runs out of scholarships before those kids are ready to make a decision.

          • gocatsgo2003

            Then you underestimate Fitz’s confidence in doing things the “Northwestern way.”

          • Chasmo

            I don’t underestimate Fitz’s confidence in the “Northwestern way.” I just doubt its effectiveness.
            NU’s biggest problem is a lack of athletes when compared with the rosters of the conference’s and nation’s superpowers. The “Northwestern way” of giving out 15 scholarships would seem to preclude getting any superstar who wants to take his time making a decision. It’s not the way Stanford built itself into a power team and it’s not the way top programs do business.

          • Richard

            Given Fitz’s track record, I’d take his way over your’s.

            Stanford has the built in advantages of climate and being Stanford (better athletics history and a notch above in academic rankings as well). That said, Fitz is getting NU up to Stanford’s level, slowly but surely. The average star level this year are at Stanford’s level over the past few years.

            Finally, as for athletes, was the reason why MSState lost to us because they didn’t have better athletes? To save you the trouble, I checked, and MSState was ranked higher than NU every year by Rivals from 2008-2011. You completely ignored the point I made that NU is one of the few programs in the country that has consistently overperformed its recruiting rankings by doing things Fitz’s way. If NU got higher-starred athletes by doing things your way instead of Fitz’s way, but then proceeded to perform at the expected level given recruiting, what would you have gained if it doesn’t actually mean more wins?

            Look, if your way would somehow catapult NU to the levels that ND or Michigan are at in recruiting, I’d do it, but I think you’re deluding yourself if you think that if Fitz was less principled, NU would magically recruit like a power program.

  • Smolmania

    Speaking of changing perceptions, check out’s top 25 pre-pre-post Spring rankings. . . esp. the team checking in at #22!

  • cece

    hoping Happ is doing ok. very frightening.

  • It’s hard to keep my expectations in check! As a current undergrad at NU, I’m more than excited to go to every home game next season, and I think that a lot of my peers will be too. More than that, it looks like the team is setting itself up for success in the long-term, with the new athletic facilities and a diverse and talented group of recruits.

  • Lexington Cat

    I have had the chance to watch Watkins play and he is a beast! Great pickup for the Cats!