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December 26, 2013

Down year doesn't hurt NU recruiting


Go figure. Coming off of its worst season in recent history, Northwestern has put the finishing touches on its best recruiting class in recent history.

Since closing out a bitterly disappointing 5-7 season, the Wildcats have landed three recruits -- two of them coveted four-stars -- to wrap up their best class under coach Pat Fitzgerald, and one of their best ever.

So while the Wildcats weren't able to close out wins on the gridiron in 2013, losing fourth-quarter leads in losses to Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan, they were certainly able to finish with a flourish on the recruiting trail this year.

Four-star superback Garrett Dickerson committed to Fitzgerald on December 6, just a week after Northwestern closed out its 1-7 Big Ten campaign with a win over Illinois. Then, last Friday, the Wildcats reeled in unranked sleeper Hamilton Anoa'i and four-star defensive back Parrker Westphal to put a bow on their 15-member class.

The Wildcats' class is currently in the No. 53 spot in Rivals' team rankings, but it would be ranked higher if the class wasn't so small and Rivals' formula didn't weigh the number of recruits in each class so heavily. For example, Northwestern's class is slotted just eighth in the Big Ten, but if rankings were based on average star ratings the Wildcats' group (3.14) would be fourth, behind only Ohio State (3.79), Michigan (3.44) and Penn State (3.29).

Dickerson and Westphal -- the two players Wildcat coaches recruited more heavily and for a longer period than any other prospects -- join Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson to give the Wildcats an unprecedented four four-star prospects in the class. That's more than any Big Ten program, except for Ohio State (13), Michigan (6) and Wisconsin (5).

(It should be noted that Northwestern lost four-star commit Dareian Watkins in November, while in the midst of a losing streak that would grow to six games. But Watkins' decision had less to do with the Wildcats' subpar year as it did what was a poor fit [in his eyes] and an offer from Wisconsin, a program he always held in high regard.)

More than star ratings, however, it's the other schools that the Wildcats beat out that make the Dickerson and Westphal "gets" impressive.

Dickerson, from Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic, chose Northwestern over offers from Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Stanford, among others. Westphal, the 20th-ranked cornerback in the country out of Bolingbrook (Ill.), picked the Cats over finalist Vanderbilt, as well as offers from the likes of Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame, Arizona State and Ohio State.

It's ironic that Fitzgerald was able to pull in those four four-stars in a year that fell so far short of expectations and broke his school-record five-year bowling streak. If the eighth-year coach knew he would get these kinds of recruiting results, maybe he would have had chosen to throw in a clunker of a season a few years ago. (Then again, probably not.)

One note of caution here is that it typically takes a year for a down season to "catch up" with a program in recruiting. The Wildcats had 12 members of their class sewed up before the season started, and they recruited those dozen coming off of a 10-win season with five straight bowls on their resume.

They also got the lion's share of their work done with Dickerson and Westphal with those same credentials. Only Anoa'i, who flew under the radar and had only once FBS offer (Nevada) before Northwestern came calling, was wooed after the Wildcats' fall from preseason grace.

Next year, Northwestern will have to recruit against its down year, which occurred during Class of 2015 prospects' junior years, when favorite schools are often identified.

Fitzgerald and his staff, though, will be able to sell the 2013 season as an aberration, a blip on the otherwise upward ascent of the program. He certainly has evidence, as the Wildcats had more bad breaks than Evel Kneivel this season, and lost games in ways that defied belief.

Come up with another lemon of a season, however, and the aberration becomes a trend -- and recruiting that much tougher.



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