Months in the making

The Northwestern coaching staff built early relationships with top targets, and recently earned its rewards.

Last July, Blake Hance traveled to Evanston for his first college visit. He met with the Northwestern coaching staff and immediately felt comfortable.

Over the next several months, his recruitment unfolded. Those original coaches were still in his ear, and while 11 schools offered, only Northwestern made him budge.

With one of the strongest recruiting classes in NU history taking shape, we're asked the obvious question: "Why now? What's going on?" As you might suspect, the answer goes beyond the win column.

When Blake Hance first loved NU–and considered it a viable option–the team was coming off a now long-forgotten 6-7 disappointment. The academics have always been there; that's not explaining the recent surge.

Really, this incredible 2014 class was founded on building early relationships. It sounds cliché, sure, but when you're a top prospect regularly hearing from dozens of college coaches, this very simple concept pays dividends.

It's why, when you talk to Hance, he'll quickly mention that fateful July barbecue before discussing everything afterward.

SEC schools can try to speed up through the process and nab commitments. Missouri entered the mix. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin not-so-subtly followed Hance's girlfriend–who attends Loyola University Chicago–on Twitter.

At the end of the day, several factors played into the Hance commitment. Yeah, there's momentum—which has been a major topic of discussion in recent weeks. And staying in-state has its appeal for various targets.

But it's impossible to ignore the hours spent on the phone talking with coaches, listening to those idyllic descriptions of Evanston. ("Yeah, the weather's pretty good.") In all seriousness, the coaches showed attention to Hance. They believed in his recruitment and dedicated the requisite time. Wins help and other factors help, but the Cats identified Hance quickly and reaped the ultimate benefit: His commitment. He'll be great.

This verbal came days after that of Justin Jackson, who provided similar reasons for his verbal. From day one, NU recognized him as a talented running back. When other schools floundered regarding his on-field position and even more failed to enter the equation, NU benefited from sticking around. No one else really stood a chance in Jackson's recruitment. To the four-star back, it was meaningful that NU maintained strong and consistent communication.

And perhaps the best example of this loyalty concept was Solomon Vault. Though it's easy to forget about those not named Dareian Watkins and Clayton Thorson, Vault fits into the slot-receiver mold crucial to the success of this offense.

In Vault's case, Nebraska jumped in with a late offer. Others did the same, well after Northwestern. It's as though in the weeks leading up to Vault's commitment, they finally saw something. Thankfully for the Wildcats, they recognized it sooner. Again: A commitment and another recruiting victory. Vault visited campus and considered it an "easy choice."

It's easy to oversimplify this recruiting success. Does it ease Hance's commitment to know he'll be joining a (current) top-20 class? Of course. Does the 10-win season help? Probably. But were these even close to the motivating factors for his commitment? Upon further reflection, not really.

Springer and Fitzgerald, Cushing and Heffner. These are some of the first words from Hance, and reflect the hours he spent talking with those coaches.

When Heffner and Cushing watched him work out last Tuesday and offered him as an offensive tackle, his reaction was one of relief. He was comfortable enough–when given an extra push–to commit the next day.

For the 2014 class, this coaching staff has zeroed in on its targets, sooner rather than later, taking advantage of through process. NU's surge happened to take place these past two weeks. But really, it was months in the making.

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