We have no idea if the class of 2014 will turn out to be the best in program history, like many have already suggested. For now, the only thing we really know about it is that it came at a damn good time.
It was easy to sell Northwestern last spring. The Wildcats finished the year with a no. 17 ranking, won the Gator Bowl and were quickly rising to national prominence. Jordan Thomas' commitment in December marked the first sign of a special recruiting season: one of the most touted defensive backs in Texas joined the Cats before the bowl game was even played, and skipped out on Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Utah to do so. When Clayton Thorson followed in March, it looked as if Northwestern peaked early — the program had landed two four-star recruits just once under Pat Fitzgerald. Then came Auston Anderson, then Justin Jackson, then Dareian Watkins. By Memorial Day, the Wildcats had already secured 10 commits, eight more than they had at that point a year ago.
Then The Season From Hell happened. Then Watkins was gone. The "there's always next year" mantra doesn't hold much weight in a sport without trades and free agency. The only way to salvage the momentum from 2012 would be to round out the class as strong as possible, a seemingly impossible task given Northwestern's 1-7 conference record. At one point, I was recapping the Wildcats' collapse to a blissfully unaware Khari Blasingame. His response: "it definitely sways my decision." A week later, the kid's going to Minnesota.
But for all the inscrutable losses NU endured this fall, the wins of Garrett Dickerson and Parrker Westphal are almost conciliatory. Fitz, Adam Cushing, Jerry Brown and Co. trudged through the roadblocks to get two of the biggest prospects in the country, one of which had an offer from the reigning national champion. When the class was finally filled a few weeks ago, it restored an important level of patience that the program desperately needed.
Northwestern hyped up 2013 as the end-all be-all, then floundered under its own expectations. Suddenly, without Kain Colter and Damien Proby and still with a nightmarish offensive line, next season doesn't figure to be all that promising either. But with four four-stars and 15 kids genuinely buying into the system, the class of 2014 affords a needed grace period and a welcomed crutch to fall back on next fall.
I've written about the idea of Northwestern "stealing recruits" from more prestigious programs for both PW and a school magazine, but the point can't be understated: these kids really want to be here. The Wildcats didn't out-state school Alabama for Garrett Dickerson; they bridged a family connection. The Cats also didn't hew to state school standards for Jackson, Anderson, Westphal or any of the other highly ranked recruits. They simply deployed that Wildcat Way they preach so heavily, and even after a season where everything went wrong, that Wildcat Way is still legitimate. We don't know exactly how good these 15 newcomers are, but we can already figure how badly they want to be good. It's corny, but until recruits turn into actual football players, platitudes and clichés are fitting.
The class of 2014 figures to be practical next year, too. Parrker Westphal should compete for playing time in a struggling secondary, and Ben Oxley, Blake Hance and Tommy Doles are all welcomed additions to a shoddy O-line.
But that's not what matters right now. Years down the road, this could be the class that completely transforms Northwestern football, and that's about the best thought we can have after this season imploded.