by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
The commitment cycle has officially stalled out for NU as it approaches “game week” in advance of the season-opener at Syracuse on Saturday. With most high school teams set to begin their seasons over the next few weeks (if not already), the focus for most prospects has rightfully shifted to final preseason prep work. We could see NU secure its final two or three commitments once prospects finish up their often lengthy official visit itineraries, most of which usually coincide with Saturday home games on college campuses so as to avoid interruption with academics and high school play while providing a glimpse of each unique gameday atmosphere. Though NU could receive its final pledges from a wide range of prospects, the short list of favorites counts five prospects (in no particular order): WR Taijuan Thomas, CB’s Patrick Enewally and Jaleel Hytchye, DT Andrew Billings and DE Austin Hooper. This is not to suggest that a surprise candidate won’t emerge over the next few months; it’s certainly plausible that NU’s final commitment (s) is not part of the above group. The listed names are simply a group for which a strong mutual interest exists between school and program, where both sides have indicated a strong desire to share a future in the college ranks.
Given the positional composition of the class – the group includes just one defensive lineman and one player slated to line up at receiver – and the high praise coming from each player throughout their NU courtships, my favorites for the remaining spots are Thomas and Hooper. Thomas had been leaning toward Stanford throughout the summer, but after visiting NU for a preseason practice told PurpleWildcats.com’s Chris Emma, “When I got to Northwestern, it changed my whole perspective.” He continued: “What gives Northwestern an edge is that it runs the spread where Stanford runs a pro(-style offense) and only has two receivers out there,” said Thomas. “I would have a better chance of playing in the spread than in the pro.” Those comments are encouraging for NU, but Thomas seems downright deadlocked between the Wildcats and Stanford. He spoke with Emma Sunday night for another update on his decision-making process. “It’s still dead even, Thomas said of the Wildcats and the Cardinal. “I couldn’t pick out a specific thing about each school. They’re both so similar.” Three-star running back commit Warren Long offered Thomas some amusing words of persuasion via his Twitter account. Meanwhile Hooper, who rolled in at No. 4 on Scout.Com’s “Preseason Top Ten Defensive Ends” list, has received more than a dozen offers from BCS conference programs, including Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington and Cal. He seems to have narrowed his choices to ND and NU, but has remained mum on his recruitment in recent weeks, saying “I’m starting to feel a lot of pressure with the recruiting process.” Thomas plans to make his decision within the next three weeks, according to Emma, while Hooper’s timetable is less certain.
The class temporarily remains at 17, tied with Iowa for third in the Big Ten and behind Michigan (23) and Illinois (19). The oft-referenced star-ratings (Scout.Com) peg NU’s class at seventh with an average of 2.94.
The 2013 class, as it stands today:
Matthew Alviti–four-star QB, Park Ridge (IL)
Sam Coverdale–three-star OT, Chagrin Falls (OH)
Brad North–three-star OG, Allen (TX)
Kyle Quiero–three-star WR/S, Oradell (NJ)
Blake King–three-star OG, Minooka (IL)
Eric Joraskie–three-star DT, Mount Carmel (PA)
Tyler Lancaster–three-star OG, Plainfield (IL)
Hunter Niswander–two-star K/P, Peninsula (OH)
Xavier Menifield–three-star RB, Chatsworth (CA)
Macan Wilson–two-star WR, Houston (TX)
Warren Long—three-star RB, Union City (CA)
Matt Harris—three-star CB/WR, La Grange (IL)
Jayme Taylor—three-star TE, The Woodlands (TX)
Anthony Walker—three-star OLB, Miami (FL)
Brett Walsh—three-star OLB, Monrovia (CA)
Keith Watkins—three-star DB, Cincinnati (OH)
Godwin Igwebuike—three-star ATH, Pickerington (OH)
(Player profiles available here)
Watkins Shines in Nationally-Televised Game
For NU fans interested in seeing these future Wildcats play out their final seasons at the high school level, Sunday night presented an awfully good opportunity. CB/RB commit Keith Watkins and Moeller (OH), who is ranked 14th in the USA Today Super 25 rankings, took on Gillman (MD) at 7 pm (ET) on ESPNU as part of ESPN’s high school football kickoff, a weekend-long slate of games featuring the nation’s top high school programs. Moeller churns out power-conference D-1 prospects each year (Wisconsin defensive end Jesse Hayes, Michigan State wide receiver Monty Madaris and Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix graduated from the school over the past three years) and has cemented its reputation as one of Ohio’s best high school programs. Watkins is a versatile player with great upside, but his teammate – Michigan State linebacker commit Shane Jones – is the more coveted recruit. Even if Jones was the main focus for scouting purposes, Watkins was the star Sunday night. He rushed for 117 yards on 18 carries en route to a 35-14 victory. It’s refreshing to see Watkins – not to mention the “Northwestern” description that appears in his on-screen identification information – performing on a national stage and representing his college destination in a positive way.
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Taphorn Selected for All-Star 3-Point Contest
The preseason football craze has distracted attention from the hardwood, but there were some interesting nuggets from the past week. Small forward Nate Taphorn, who committed in July, was selected for the Under Armour Elite 24 three-point challenge in Venice Beach, the first event of a weekend-long expose of the nation’s top high school talents. The shooting display preceded a dunk contest Friday night – won by five-star power forward Julius Randle – and an all-star game Saturday. The contest featured a select heaping of the best long-range marksmen in the country. Kansas commit Conner Frankamp took first prize by hitting 19 shots in the final round. Taphorn took part in the festivities, but his journey to Los Angeles was far more troublesome than competing against the country’s best three-point shooters in a nationally-televised event (the three-point shootout, dunk contest and all-star game aired on ESPNU). His Thursday flight to LA was canceled, so Taphorn drove to Chicago Friday morning for a 7 a.m. flight and competed that night on minimal rest.
Despite not winning the contest, receiving an invitation is an accomplishment in and of itself. Taphorn is clearly rising on the national scene, and the nation’s most respected high school talent evaluators are taking notice. The invite proves event organizers thought his shooting prowess had reached a standard of national acclaim; his inclusion validates the reputation he’s developed as one of 2013’s best pure shooting prospects. Taphorn’s participation benefits not only his own reputation, but also Northwestern’s. For high school prospects considering NU as a potential destination, just seeing Taphorn challenging the best players in the country affects their perception of the school, if only subliminally. At the very least, his presence at the event stirred conversation about NU and its recruiting efforts. And for a school that’s long struggled to garner lasting recognition on the recruiting trail beyond Illinois and the greater Midwest area, Taphorn – by way of showing up at an event that hardly paints a complete picture of his prospects at the next level, but rather celebrates an intricately refined skill in a setting that bears no resemblance to game situations – projected NU in a positive light before a national audience.
NU’s 2013 Class Breaks Top 25
I skipped over this a few weeks back, but ESPN Recruiting Nation updated its 2013 class rankings on August 8. NU surged into the top 25, falling at No. 19. Here’s ESPN’s brief description of the Wildcats class. Naturally, the scouts at the “world wide leader” inserted a minor quip on NU’s academics:
“When it comes to players fitting at Northwestern, ESPN 100 point guard Jaren Sina (Lake Hopatcong, N.J./Gill St. Bernard’s) and small forward Nate Taphorn (Pekin, Ill./Pekin) are not only good academically, but also talented and smart basketball players. Sina is a hard-nosed guard who can run the team, make plays and knock down the open jumper with range to the arc. Taphorn has game-breaking shooting ability, deep range and a quick trigger to make the Wildcats’ Princeton-style offense tough to handle.”
It’s important to keep in mind that these sorts of generic class rankings will change with frequent updates in the coming months. NU may lose its place in the top 25 as we approach the spring signing period. It could just easily ascend the list with another decorated commitment. For now, the high ranking represents a mere appraisal of the hype and general scouting assessments of Taphorn and Jaren Sina. It puts a value on the general consensus surrounding NU’s two-member class and shows Wildcats fans were appropriate in praising the new commits. Obviously these players can’t be definitively judged until they reach campus. But for the purposes of extending NU’s recruiting reputation in a positive way, rating ahead of some of the nation’s top programs – even if it’s a short-lived existence – gives some measure of validation to prospects with doubts about the program’s long-term sustainability. These rankings are not a surefire scale for gauging performance at the college level, but they provide fans and prospects with an arbitrary measuring stick for each program’s recruiting progress. NU’s position leaves casual observers – fans, parents, potential recruits – with a positive impression of its recruiting efforts, even if the rankings are largely irrelevant until the recruits begin their college careers. All in all, this marks a positive development and a sign that NU is effectively convincing nationally coveted prospects to join the Wildcats.
Davis makes decision
The ranking boost apparently didn’t seal the deal for Kyle Davis, a coveted point guard prospect from Chicago who committed to Dayton over the weekend, according to Fox Sports Next’s Jeremy Woo. NU is still in the mix for two other highly-touted backcourt prospects from the Windy City: Alvin Ellis and Sterling Brown. Missing out on Davis hurts, but pairing Sina and Taphorn with Ellis and/or Brown would give NU an impressive crop of guards in its 2013 class.