football Edit

Northwestern's 2020 class: An impressive group that could've been better

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald (AP Images)

They've got a name for National Signing Day at Northwestern this year: Wednesday.

Today's second National Signing Day is like any other day of the week for the Wildcats. Barring a shocking development, the program won't be adding anymore scholarship high school players to their 2020 class; they will stay with the 17 players they signed in December.

Northwestern coaches are working on some transfer possibilities, but transfers don't have to sign on NSD; they can be added at anytime in the coming months. As far as high schoolers go, this class is a wrap.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald called Northwestern's 2020 class the best he's ever had back in December, and you can make a case that it is. It's technically the second-highest ranked group that he's brought into the program at No. 48 nationally, but it has the highest average star rating at 3.06.

Yet, to WildcatReport, this class manages to be simultaneously impressive and a bit disappointing. Impressive for what it is, but disappointing for what it could have been.


Why it's impressive

Peter Skoronski
Peter Skoronski (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

When it comes to why this class is a strong one, start at the top.

Peter Skoronski is the crown jewel of the class as the lone four-star prospect and U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant. He is the No. 4 player in Illinois and No. 222 in the nation, the highest-ranked offensive lineman the Wildcats have landed since Patrick Ward in 2009.

Skoronski heads up a tremendous haul on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“I think this is a really talented group," said Fitzgerald of his linemen back in December. "It starts up front. That group of big guys is absolutely phenomenal.”

Skoronski joins three-stars Josh Priebe and Ben Wrather in as good a group of offensive linemen the Wildcats have signed. Together, the trio turned down offers from Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Auburn and many others.

On the defensive side, the Wildcats landed a pair of 300-pound tackles in Jordan Butler and Terah Edwards, an explosive duo who will add a lot of size in the middle, as well as a pair of developmental ends in Jaiden Cameron and Sean McLaughlin, whose ceilings are as high as their shirtsleeves are long.

“You’ve got to win in the Big Ten upfront, man,” said Fitzgerald. This class bostered the team's roster on both sides of the line.

Beyond that, the Wildcats addressed needs across the board, with three corners, two superbacks, two linebackers, a safety, a running back and a quarterback. Wide receiver was the only position group not represented.

They got one four-star in Skoronski, and everyone else was a three-star. It's the first time a Fitzgerald class didn't have at least one two-star prospect.

Not even Northwestern's dreadful 2019 season could derail the recruiting momentum. The Wildcats posted their worst Big Ten record in 21 years, yet they still added two flips from other schools (Butler from Vanderbilt and Nigel Williams from Wake Forest) during and after the season, while losing one (more on that later).

Northwestern also deserves kudos for landing quarterback Carl Richardson late in the cycle, after commit Aidan Atkinson got arrested in late November on a sexual assault charge. The staff, which was as blindsided by the news as everyone else, was able to recover from that recruiting catastrophe and land a bona-fide prospect at a crucial position of need.

At first glance, the 2020 class's No. 48 national ranking doesn't seem very extraordinary; the Wildcats have finished in the Top 50 three times in the last five years. But it gets more impressive as you dig deeper.

For one, the Rivals ranking formula rewards a class's depth and is a cumulative measure of the rankings of the top 20 players in the class. They add up the Rivals points (a combination of stars and Rivals Rating points) of the best 20 players in the class, and that total -- not an average -- determines the rankings. So the more players you sign, the better your score.

With only 17 members, Northwestern's group gets knocked because it's three members short of that 20 mark, and therefore has 15% fewer possible points. It's not a coincidence that the bottom three teams in the Big Ten rankings this year (Northwestern, Rutgers and Illinois, in that order) happen to be the only three classes with fewer than 20 signees.

However, if you go by star average, which would be more of a qualitative and less of a quantitative measure, Northwestern's class would come in at No. 33 nationally. Likewise, their Big Ten ranking would rocket from 12th to sixth.

Among teams with less than 20 signees, Northwestern ranks eighth in the nation. Not too shabby.

Here's how Northwestern's 2020 class stacks up against the other classes during the 2010s:

Last 10 Northwestern Class Rankings
Class Commits Nat'l Rank Avg. Stars 4/3/2 Stars

2020

17

48

3.06

1/16/0

2019

19

49

2.95

0/18/1

2018

18

60

2.94

1/16/1

2017

19

56

2.84

0/15/4

2016

20

46

2.90

1/16/3

2015

20

55

2.65

0/15/5

2014

15

66

3.00

4/7/4

2013

19

54

2.89

1/15/3

2012

21

53

2.76

2/13/6

2011

16

77

2.88

0/14/2

Why it's disappointing

Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen
Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Fitzgerald likes to say that, in recruiting, you focus on the guys you get, not the ones you don't. But it's hard to overlook the guys they didn't land in this class.

The truth is, this should have been the best class of Fitzgerald's tenure. The program's brand was never stronger than it was coming off of the 2018 season.

The Wildcats had just won the Big Ten West, made an appearance in the Big Ten championship game and won their third straight bowl. The Walter Athletics Center, NU's $270-million temple of swank, had just opened the year before. Fitzgerald declared on national television after a bowl win that he was a Wildcat for life.

What's more, three of the top four players in Illinois -- No. 2 AJ Henning, No. 3 Rylie Mills and No. 4 Skoronski -- all had the grades to quality for Northwestern. So did J.J. McCarthy, a hotshot quarterback who is the No. 1 prospect in Illinois for 2021 and was making the rounds on campuses last winter and spring.

With the buzz around the program at an all-time high, the Wildcats were able to attract a steady stream of big-time, four-star, Rivals250 visitors. The problem was, they couldn't land any of them besides Skoronski.

Henning, a dynamic athlete from the same Lincoln-Way East program that produced Wildcats Devin O'Rourke and McLaughlin, visited several times but went to Michigan. So did Kalel Mullings, a LB from Massachusetts who visited Evanston three times, including an official. Even McCarthy wound up in Ann Arbor after visiting NU multiple times.

Mills, a defensive end, took several trips down the road from Lake Forest to Evanston but wound up in South Bend at Notre Dame. Isaiah Raikes, a New Jersey defensive tackle, took an official to Northwestern but eventually picked Texas A&M (though he didn't sign with the Aggies in December).

The Wildcats missed out on playmaker Cameron Martinez twice. He committed to Ohio State after taking an official visit to Northwestern last spring, but then left the door open by not signing with the Buckeyes in December. So NU coaches made multiple trips to Muskegon, Mich., to again try to woo him, but he ended up a Buckeye after all.

Northwestern got all those four-star, Rivals250 players on campus, but they were unable to close them. Not even the Walter Athletics Center's sweeping views of Lake Michigan and state-of-the-art facilities could prevent them from signing with traditional power programs.

But maybe the unkindest cut of all came on Dec. 18, the first day of the early signing period, when Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen, a four-star wide receiver commit, signed with Purdue instead of the Wildcats after taking an official visit to West Lafayette the weekend before. Yaseen had been committed to Northwestern for almost a year before flipping to the Boilers. A source close to Yaseen said that the Wildcats' dismal offensive showing in 2019 was the major reason for his decision.

Losing a four-star talent was bad enough -- that he played a position of need and defected to a Big Ten West rival only made it worse.


The final word

Fitzgerald has said many times that NU's new Walter Athletics Center was "a game-changer" in recruiting and a "championship-level commitment" to the football program by Northwestern's administration.

Landing just a couple of those four-stars who passed on the Wildcats could have made this class worthy of that level of support. Right now, we're not sure the Wildcats got enough bang for their buck with this class. And if they couldn’t land those blue-chippers in this cycle, when the program was at high tide, it’s fair to wonder if they ever will be able to.

Northwestern's class is a strong one, a balanced, solid, nuts-and-bolts group that may be the best in Fitzgerald's 14 years at the helm. But is it a "championship-level" class?

Only time will tell for sure, but on NSD, it doesn't look that way. We can't help but think about what might have been.