If there were any doubts, the Wildcats coaching staff gave J.B. Butler a strong reminder of his potential.
"I had a nice, long talk with Jacob Schmidt," the 2014 preferred walk-on commit said. "He walked on and played a lot. He emphasized the fact that if I go there, I have a good chance to play. I can work hard enough, earn a scholarship and go from there."
As Schmidt proved, the "preferred walk-on" status can blossom into a meaningful career. In 2011, he was the team's second-leading rusher—compiling 471 yards and six touchdowns.
But Butler's weekend visit provided more than a quick glimpse of dreams. The Joliet Catholic HS (Ill.) commit talked with coaches, players and met with an academic adviser to plan his summer classes.
He stayed with redshirt freshman Brad North, a member of a unit that struggled through most of the 2013 season. North and guys like Blake King reassured Butler of the team's direction, and sent a unified message his way.
"They understand everything that's going on," Butler said of the players. "Being with Brad, the center, they know the offensive line is a point of emphasis this year in what they need to do. They love it. They're excited. Moving forward, they just want to improve."
In nine days, the class of 2014 will officially sign with Northwestern. Though incomplete—with one spot remaining—this group is looking to avoid staring at another poor conference record.
"The coaches keep telling me: ‘It was a blip on the radar,'" Butler said. "They're more prepared than that. Coach Fitzgerald is never going to be unprepared with anything.
"It's a learning process. A lot of the games were decided by three or fewer points. They have to close better, but they're not really worried about it."
Butler knows the value of having something to prove. A solid O-line prospect who never quite reached enough attention, he'll arrive on campus driven to establish his role. Just like Jacob Schmidt did once upon a time.
The team's in the same position. Coming off of its "fluke" 5-7 record, the 2014 recruiting class marks another milestone, and another day separated from last season's struggles.
Butler's hearing the same thing as everyone else. They're ready to turn the page.