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May 24, 2013

NU's 2014 class ranks 12th nationally

Northwestern is entering the high-rent district with its Class of 2014.

With defensive tackle Ben Oxley picking up a three-star ranking this week, the Wildcats find themselves ranked 12th in the country and third in the Big Ten in Rivals' most recent Team Rankings.

For a program accustomed to residing in the garden apartment in the college football recruiting high-rise, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company find themselves up near the penthouse.

Just consider the Wildcats' neighbors: they are tied with Clemson, lodged between national champion Alabama and Florida nationally, and behind only perennial powers Michigan and Ohio State in conference. That's a pretty good neighborhood to call home.

So, how did Northwestern get such a tony recruiting address?

Fitzgerald has always done a decent job landing three-star prospects, but this year the Wildcats' 10-member class features three four-star prospects: running back Justin Jackson, quarterback Clayton Thorson and athlete Dareian Watkins. That's the most four-stars the Wildcats have had in one group since Rivals began ranking classes.

They also have a pair of three-stars, running back Auston Anderson and defensive back Jordan Thomas, that own 5.7 Rivals Ratings (on a 6.0 scale), the highest possible number for a three-star player.

Fitzgerald has picked up the pace on landing four-stars in recent years. After snagging just one (Patrick Ward) in his first five classes, the Wildcats' head man now has six in his last three -- the trio in this current group, plus Ifeadi Odenigbo and Greg Kuhar in 2012, and Matt Alviti in 2013.

Recruits are taking notice of the Wildcats' sudden surge in star power. Not surprisingly, good players want to play with other good players.

"Playing with those kind of guys is going to be awesome," three-star tackle Blake Hance, the most recent Northwestern commitment, told WildcatReport. "I've always been reading a lot about them. … It's going to be really exciting."

"I think the class is a reflection of where the program is going," said Jackson, the reigning Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, after his commitment earlier this month. "You see all of these high three-star and four-star guys and it really shows the progression of the program. Coming off of a 10-3 season, where they could have easily been undefeated, you can see where the program is headed. I'm excited to be part of what might be the best class they've ever had."

Northwestern's stay among the recruiting elite may not be long, however, because the class will almost certainly fall in the rankings as time goes on. The Wildcats expect a small class of around 15 players, and Rivals' rankings formula puts weight on the size of a school's class -- quantity, as well as quality. So programs with bigger classes will always hold an edge in recruiting rankings over Northwestern, which typically has smaller classes because very few players leave the program due to transfers, discipline or grades.

Still, with six of the Wildcats' 10 prospects ranked nationally at their positions -- topped by Thorson, the No. 7 dual-threat QB in the country -- this class looks destined to be Fitzgerald's finest, and potentially the best in school history. Fitzgerald has never before had a class that finished higher than 53rd nationally (2007 and 2013) or eighth in the Big Ten (2013) in Rivals' rankings.



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