When asked on Signing Day to describe Northwestern’s 19 newest Wildcats, Pat Fitzgerald began to rave about each recruit.
The head coach started one by one—Brad North, a state champion at Allen (TX) High School; Keith Watkins, a cornerback who also is a standout basketball player; Matthew Alviti, the prized quarterback of NU’s class—then cut himself off.
“I can keep going on and on,” Fitzgerald said. “These guys are winners, they’re captains, they’re leaders.”
It’s a special time for Northwestern’s football program. It just earned an elusive bowl victory one month ago and has a state-of-the-art athletic complex coming to campus. Add to that, the entire coaching staff remains intact for a third consecutive season and the team has talent down the pipeline at each position.
In an ideal position, Northwestern has quite the luxury with its recruiting efforts. This was made evident with the 2013 class. The Wildcats weren’t desperately searching for their next starting running back or panicking to fill depth on the offensive line. With program stability, NU had the benefit of seeking pure talent.
Take for example Tommy Fuessel, a talented quarterback at Lincoln-Way East (Ill.) High School. Even with his 6-foot-3 frame and blazing speed, only one BCS-conference offer came his way. Or look at Monrovia, Calif. linebacker Brett Walsh, the tackling machine who was overlooked by all but one major-conference program.
“As a football coach,” explained Northwestern recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson, “you’re saying: OK, what can this guy do athletically? Where can he fit in our program?”
But it’s not the same for any football coach, as MacPherson alluded. Just two and a half hours south of Northwestern’s campus, Illinois head man Tim Beckman used his first full recruiting class to fill his team’s needs while working to build a core. With his program still lacking in stability, that proved to be quite the challenge. This is just one of many examples.
Northwestern has reached five consecutive bowl games and has its seventh-year head coach locked in through 2020. Its sustained success is paying off on the recruiting trails.
With such a great benefit in hand, the Wildcats were able to tell talented four-star prospect Godwin Igwebuike to pick his position—running back or defensive back. They could recruit a Keith Watkins or Warren Long based on the pure talent they scouted.
“You’re looking for the best available athletes,” MacPherson said. “When you have those best available athletes, most of the time, when you look at a high-school program, the best players on their team are playing either quarterback or running back, because they’re the easiest people to get the ball in their hands.”
However, Northwestern sought more than just size or speed. It worked to foster a winning culture within the locker room, adding 10 former team captains and products of success high-school programs.
“When you have leaders, when you guys that are used to winning, I think all that does is help you with team chemistry,” said MacPherson.
Riding high off a 10-win season and with stability in place, such results have carried into recruiting. Northwestern can boast a bright future with the group of 19 it welcomed into the program.
“I think it’s a very talented group,” said Fitzgerald. “Very athletic, great size, and we think we’ve got a quarterback that’s really special in this class.”