Cardinal Win

Cardinal Win

PR got in touch with Stanford's Scout page this summer to ask about the Cardinal's then-Top 5 recruiting class. While the discussion was about Stanford's success, it ultimately shed light on something that happened weeks later: Will Hampton's de-commitment from Stanford and ensuing commitment to NU. See how the strategy that spurred the Cardinal's success may have kept the door open for Hampton.

When it comes to recruiting against Stanford, there have been more defeats than wins for Northwestern recently.

Per football status and academic standards, the two schools recruit from the same pool of classroom-inclined athletes. And in the past few years, a handful of players targeted by NU ended up in Palo Alto – more than the other way around.

From the 2010 class, Dillon Bonnell, an offensive lineman from Colorado, thought he'd look better in red than purple, as did Arizona safety Devon Carrington and Pennsylvania receiver Jarrod West. In 2008, running back Michael Thomas opted for Stanford over Northwestern, as well as 2009 tight end Ryan Hewitt and lineman Khalil Wilkes.

All of those guys were three- or four-star recruits – mostly four – all held offers from both schools, all chose Stanford.

(To be fair, NU has scored some Stanford targets of its own. O-lineman Paul Jorgenson from Michigan and receiver Tony Jones are both 2010 prospect who are headed Evanston way despite offers from Stanford. And that's just this year. But the recent running tally of three- and four-star guys nonetheless favor the Cardinal.)

Despite the Stanford-leaning trend the past couple of years, Northwestern recently nabbed a much-sought after prospect in Texas defensive lineman Will Hampton. And Hampton was quite the commodity.

You want size? Hampton's 6-3 and 275 pounds. You want speed? Well, Hampton runs a sub-4.9 40. You want stars? The three-star prospect has those too. And what makes Hampton's commitment to NU extra noteworthy is not simply that he was also being recruited by Stanford.

More than that, he had already committed to Stanford.

Indeed, Northwestern won this round with the Cardinal after it appeared the game was over. This got Purple Reign to thinking about Stanford*, their recruiting success and if there was anything other than teenage fickleness that inspired Hampton's about-face.

* Purple Reign was also thinking about Stanford's nickname/mascot/color, the "Cardinal." A little odd, yeah? I mean, the logo boasts a huge tree. And whereas most schools have some sort of animal – like a tiger or buffalo or bear or wildcat – roaming the sidelines, Stanford, of course, has that tree.

A quick Internet search revealed the origins. Apparently the Cardinal used to be the Cardinals. But before that – starting in 1930 – the mascot was the Indians. That lasted until 1972 when students objected, at which point the school went with Cardinals. Apparently, all along the "Cardinals" was supposed to refer to the color rather than the bird. That nuance, however, was lost on people. So in 1981 the school eschewed suggestions from the student body (such as Sequoias, Trees, Railroaders, Spikes, Huns, and Griffins) and simply dropped the "s" on Cardinals. Thus, the Cardinal. Now you know (more than you ever wanted).

So Purple Reign dusted off a mid-summer interview with Scout.com's Jim Rutter, who runs the Stanford Scout page, The Bootleg*. The interview took place long before Hampton had de-committed from Stanford and re-committed to Northwestern, and not a once did his name even come up. But in rereading the transcript from the interview with Rutter, he may have shed some light – albeit inadvertently – on why it was that Hampton flip-flopped and has now signed with NU.

* The Bootleg, by the way, is a pretty awesome site – the envy of many of its Scout.com brethren (or at least one). I hate driving traffic away from Purple Reign, but The Bootleg is definitely worth a peek.

Purple Reign first contacted The Bootleg to get to the bottom of some message board speculation about Stanford and its recruiting success. And indeed, Stanford has had recent recruiting success, certainly more so than you may expect for a team that hasn't been bolwing in a long while.

About that recruiting success…In the 2008 class, the Cardinal nabbed five-star recruit and NU target Andrew Luck, who Scout dubbed the No. 4 quarterback in the nation, as well as three four-star prospect to boot. And in 2009, the nation's No. 3 LB, five-star Shayne Skov, committed along with nine four-star recruits. Plus there was the 2010, which was at one point in the Top 5 in the nation. So, Stanford is doing OK for itself.

NU, by contrast, has had just two four-star recruits the past six years – cornerback Jordan Mabin and D-end Davon Custis. Now, Fitz and any NU coach you ask will tell you* that it's not about the number of stars a guy has or how many schools have offered. But the success – on paper – that the Cardinal has had recently is pretty impressive – especially for a school that has won just 10 games the last three seasons and 25 the past seven seasons.

* Fitz told me just that the first time I ever talked to him. I was writing about how the team's recent success had helped the Cats land some bigger recruits this season, like Patrick Ward, a kid who had a plethora of offers. I can't remember exactly what I said, probably something like, "You guys have won more games each of the last few seasons than you had the year before. What kind of impact do you think that's had in helping you lure recruits away from some of the more ‘traditional' powers." Fitz, who I had just met a moment earlier, didn't mince his words: "To be honest, I don't put a lot of stock into what you guys say."

Fair enough. I think it's pretty obvious that the staff knows what they're doing; anyone see Arby Fields last week? But while Fitz and Co. say that they don't put stock into this, some people, especially message board folk, sure do. And it's not like you don't want to have big-time players. The deal with NU is maybe that it doesn't NEED them.

So when I asked Rutter what the deal was with Stanford – an academics-first, football-fifth type of place – landing all these recruits, he said something pretty interesting.

"What's happened," Rutter said, "is a change and evolution in strategy to not only offer early, but to offer some fairly big numbers. They're not being frivolous with their offers, but they're really offering early and offering to a lot of kids….

"What (head coach Jim) Harbaugh is doing is what should have already been done. The previous Stanford coaches were kind of asleep at the wheel in recruiting."

The day of the interview, Scout ranked the Cardinal as having the No. 5 recruiting class in the nation – largely the result of the school's ambitious and extensive early-offering plan. And it's been working exceptionally well again this year. Already, Stanford has six four-star recruits – including NU targets Carrington and Bonnell – and most of them were onboard by mid-summer.

Well, Hampton was one of those get-on-them-early successes. Stanford was the first school to offer, and Hampton committed way back in May. As he tells it…

"I committed to Stanford Saturday morning when I was talking with coach Harbaugh," Hampton said in an interview with The Bootleg. "He was really excited. He was like ‘We're glad to have you buddy.' He shook my hand and hugged my parents….

"Stanford is everything I'm looking for in a college," Hampton added. "It has one of the greatest educational opportunities in the world. I know their last season wasn't that good at 5-7, but their football in the future is going to be great, the facilities are excellent and the players are nice. This trip just solidified my decision to commit to Stanford."

That decision, obviously, got less and less solid in the ensuing months. Before long, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas Tech and, yes, Northwestern were there with offers. By mid-July, Hampton had 15 additional offers in addition to Stanford.

The Cardinal, of course, was there first. But Hampton saw that there was green grass – maybe even greener – in places other than Palo Alto.

And this, this is the drawback to Stanford's offer-early strategy. Sure, you get a lot of kids who find it endearing, commit and gracefully exit the recruiting trail. As Rutter put it, "By offering early, you get into the minds of kids and let you know that you have an interest."

But not all of them close their eyes once they've committed. See: Will Hampton.

In an August 20 article by Scout, Hampton said, "I have about 17 offers right now, but I am only seriously considering Notre Dame and Northwestern."

So in three months, Hampton went from holding but one offer, from Stanford, to holding numerous offers and still being committed to Stanford, to holding numerous offers and de-committing from Stanford.

"There is a danger," Rutter prophetically said, "of quote, ‘overcommitting' by having too many guys say, ‘Yes.' That can be managed….But you have a higher danger of getting them to de-committing."

Touché.

And that's what happened with Hampton. Because, after all, a commitment is merely a verbal agreement until signing day. And signing day was month and months – and more than a dozen additional offers – away from the day Hampton first committed to Stanford.

Stanford is likely not devastated by the loss of Hampton. He was but one of many 2010 standouts that the Cardinal has received commits from. But the Wildcats, well, they've got to be pretty stoked about Hampton. Along with Jorgenson, NU is well on its way to building a stellar defensive line for some years to come. And what makes it all the better is that he was theoretically committed elsewhere back in May.

At least some of the recruiting Ws that Stanford has notched against Northwestern can be chalked up to their offer-early strategy. But it's no stretch to say that Hampton's de-commitment is a bi-product of that strategy as well. Obviously, offering early doesn't guarantee anything, even if a player is already committed. Just ask Will Hampton.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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