For most participants, this is the special moment. Many will not sign FBS scholarships, but they have the opportunity to prove their worth for Darrell Hazell and his assistant coaches.
At the end of the grueling workout–in 90-degree weather–they carried evaluation slips back to their parents and moved on, probably to the next camp. Some beamed with pride. Some overestimated the strength of their performances. Regardless, they left happy and encouraged. With no expected immediate offers, there was really nothing to lose.
The coaching staff, however, faced a different situation. The Boilermakers have just two commits for their 2014 class, and both are relatively unheralded wide receivers. They may have an exciting upcoming week, with quarterback David Blough and defensive end Gelen Robinson closing in on commitments. Still, the coaches must be nervous of the direction, waiting for everything to come together.
This is West Lafayette, Indiana. And boy, just two hours away, it feels a far cry from the situation in Evanston. Here, everything gained clarity so quickly and so perfectly. It began with an exciting December commit in Jordan Thomas, picked up momentum when Clayton Thorson jumped to his verbal, and then nine others joined the program bursting with momentum.
Purdue once rolled through this Big Ten conference. Led by Joe Tiller—a criminally underrated and now retired head coach–the Boilers had winning records in all but one season from 1997-2004. They went to Pasadena once, and established themselves as a perennial contender. But everything declined at the end of the Tiller era and throughout the Danny Hope era, and the new coaching staff has to build its own reputation from scratch.
There was no momentum on the gold and black field, and they're getting antsy. The major story involved center Kirk Barron. The three-star prospect committed to Ohio, and that all seemed premature. After his relatively strong performance at camp, the coaching staff might offer Barron in hopes of landing commit number three. It was a tough camp, and Hazell has had considerable difficulty on the trail in these early stages.
Because really, getting so close to success can result in the loss of perspective. It seemed only natural when Northwestern leveraged its top remaining offensive line target, Blake Hance, into an almost immediate commitment last month. Even with some elite options, he sat down with his family and didn't want the team to evaluate other O-linemen. That was the 10th commitment.
So it was an eye-opening experience for this NU beat writer to see life outside of our enormous hype machine. Purdue, in the end, will be just fine. The staff is loaded with promising young assistants including Marcus Freeman and Gerad Parker. The team returns standout running back Akeem Hunt and other solid talents.
This is not to sling mud at Purdue; it's rather to illustrate the strides NU has taken as a team—and how that's profoundly impacted its recruiting efforts. As a five-year program, there's not much more excitement left to be had. Fitzgerald will in all likelihood accept four more pledges before the page turns to the class of 2015 and even greater aspirations. There's no need for tunnel vision, I've come to realize: This 2014 Northwestern group has simply been excellent.
There is so little desperation to this final picture. They identified their final needs: defensive end, outside linebacker, defensive back(s). You can count the number of primary targets with two hands, and may even guess the "final four" with alarming accuracy.
It's not necessary for the class to take shape this quickly, but it helps. Several commits–and prospective recruits–point to the already solid 2014 group as part of the reason for their excitement. It affects team solidarity. They join Facebook groups, direct message each other and share this common vision for the program moving forward. Hint: it involves championships.
NU targets know what they're getting into, which is something special. Regardless of where the class ends up ranked, in the high 20s or even the low 30s, NU gained a year's worth of positive PR with its surprising early haul.
At Purdue, it was another story, and one with hints of desperation. One trip across the state line revealed how transformative this class has been for Northwestern. It lacks uncertainty or drama, with camps being more of a formality (sorry) for 2014 players who don't hold offers.
It would be difficult to directly compare these experiences. One school has the exact same coaching staff as it did the past three seasons; the other staff is entirely brand new.
But at NU, you imagine all of the coaches sitting inside a sort of draft room—going about their business. There is this united vision and directness of purpose that has resulted in one of the best recruiting classes in school history.
The confidence is there in every element of the program. And it's not like that everywhere else.