Kevin Trahan
By (@k_trahan)
Apr 19, 2013

When the Northwestern offense is rolling, it’s tough to stop. When the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts are flying high, they might be even tougher to bring down.

Thursday was one heck of a recruiting day for NU, as the Wildcats got a commitment from 3-star WR Solomon Vault to bring their commitment count to five for the class of 2014. Vault was on campus this past weekend, and before committing, he pegged NU as his favorite.

“I like where the program’s headed athletically,” he said. “They have a great coach, there’s a new facility being built, they’re doing a better job of recruiting, they won their first bowl game in like 50 years. I was really impressed.”

The middle of that quote is the key: “they’re doing a better job of recruiting.” It’s an odd thing to hear from a recruit who’s probably basing that on perception more than experience, considering he’s only dealt with the current staff. However, it’s absolutely true. Just a few years ago, NU could never have gotten its name in with Vault, much less have secured a commitment. Vault pegged the Wildcats as his favorite school when his offer list included the likes of Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Minnesota. This week, he picked up a Nebraska offer, and committed to NU just days later. Considering the putrid history of this program, that’s an incredible accomplishment.

What’s more incredible is that this is becoming the norm. Vault’s commitment wasn’t received as a tremendous success; rather, it was more of a “cool, on to the next one” attitude. We’re not yet to the point where Pat Fitzgerald’s staff is consistently beating out the Tenneessees and Nebraskas of the world for recruits, but we’re to the point where it’s not all that surprising. We’re to the point where NU can compete with the big boys, at least on the recruiting trail.

Vault’s commitment wasn’t the only big recruiting news of the day. 2014 target Garrett Dickerson narrowed his top five down to NU, Ohio State, Stanford, Michigan and Alabama. I may be wrong, but I believe that’s the first time the Wildcats have been in that company for a recruit. Of course, it’s still a longshot, and Dickerson has ties to NU that make it easier for the Wildcats to get on the list — his brother, Cameron, is a wide receiver at NU, his former high school teammate, Kyle Queiro, is a member of NU’s class of 2013, and his current high school teammate, Cameron Queiro, is a member of the Wildcats’ class of 2014.

Then there’s 4-star local product Justin Jackson, who says NU is his favorite over Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and others. There’s also Auston Anderson, a running back from Texas who currently calls NU his No. 1 school over the likes of Stanford, UCLA and Texas. It’s too early to tell, but if a Texas kid were to pick NU over Texas… that’d sure be something.

If the Wildcats one of those three players — and by all accounts, they probably will — it would be a success. But even if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. What’s important is that NU is changing the perception of recruits. The next step will be winning more of these recruiting battles, but the fact that the Wildcats are getting their name in the same conversation as Stanford, Alabama, Ohio State and others is a major accomplishment. More importantly, this is looking more like a trend, not a fluke.

Just look at the current five members of the 2014 recruiting class. It has four 3-stars and one 4-star. Collectively, they’ve turned down Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, Ole Miss, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Vanderbilt, Syracuse and so many others. Considering where this program has come from, that’s incredible.

Fitzgerald always says he doesn’t care about star ratings and recruiting hype, and it’s true that you don’t know how these players will fare until they get on campus. However, recruiting rankings mean something in terms of public perception, and they mean something to the status of a program. They also mean something to recruits, and in addition to all of the pieces of Fitzgerald’s ever-improving recruiting pitch — the bowl win, the new practice facility, the playing style, Chicago and so much more — the “what caliber player comes here” aspect still matters. Five years ago, Solomon Vault wasn’t a “Northwestern” recruit. Now he is, as much as he’s a Tennessee-or-Nebraska-caliber recruit. That’s progress, and there’s no indication it’s going to stop soon.

The Wildcats still have some catching up to do to their peers in recruiting. There will always be inherent challenges to recruiting to NU, but as this class indicates, those challenges don’t seem as daunting anymore. Ultimately, success on the field can only be sustained by success on the recruiting trail. Now that NU has taken its results on the recruiting trail to the next level, similar sustained results on the field might not be far behind.

  • gocatsgo2003

    1) The “putrid history of the program” theme is far too simplistic. The kids committing to the class of 2014 were born in 1995 and 1996. Northwestern has been a competitive program for literally their entire lives. While recruiting is undoubtedly on the upswing, I’m almost 100% sure that it doesn’t have anything to do with the “putrid” history of the program as it isn’t the history of our program insofar as the recruits remember.

    2) To find Northwestern in company with the schools on Dickerson’s list, you have to go back… all of two years. Ifeadi Odenigbo turned down almost literally the same list of schools.

    • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

      1) Historically, NU has struggled to recruit because the perception has been that the program isn’t very good. Nobody really debates this. That’s one of the main issues.

      2) That was one kid in the entire recruiting class. This class is getting many more consistently good offers. That’s indisputable.

      • gocatsgo2003

        1) And it’s my contention that this perception is fading quickly and may even be gone, at least amongst the players Northwestern is recruiting (which is the only relevant audience in this discussion). Fitz was winning every national award and we won a B1G title when these kids were 4 or 5 and we really haven’t had many “clunker” seasons in the interim.

        The vast majority of the recruits probably have no clue as to the state of the program in the 1970s and 1980s, instead only knowing Northwestern as a program that’s historically been competitive and is trying to push into the upper quartile of the B1G.

        2) You’re selling short the classes of 2012 and 2013 in addition to the depth of those classes. Plenty of our guys from those classes had offers from the likes of Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, etc.; most notably Alviti, Igwebuike, DePietro, Henry, Malin Jones, Kuhar, Odenigbo, and Olson.

        Shoot, even some of our lesser-rated recruits got late overtures from “name” schools (e.g. Oregon tried to poach Eric Wilson late in the process).

      • bd005

        Basically, the key has been the 4 consecutive bowl appearances – which started to make recruits believe that NU FB could be a consistent “winner” – which allowed for 4 consecutive solid recruiting classes.

        The 10 win season and the bowl win allowed more of the recruits with offers from the more traditional FB powers to think that they aren’t going to miss anything CFB-wise if they pick NU.

        If the ‘Cats build on last season’s success – 10+ win season and winning an upper-tier bowl game, then the program will really start to compete for the 4* recruits and recruits with numerous offers from the traditional CFB powers.

        We were starting to see a similar uptick in recruiting with the BB program with 4 consecutive post-season appearances.

        Recruits want to go somewhere where they know they can win.

      • Gladeskat

        1) The program has the perception of a school that regularly goes to bowl games and has won the Big Ten 3 times in the past 20 years. It is seen as a very competitive program.

        2) NU’s ’93, ’94. ’96, ’97, ’98, ’00, ’01, ’05, ’07, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’13 classes had numerous players with multiple BCS offers and offers from solid programs. While our recruiting has been going well the past 4 years because of program consistency and soft OOC scheduling to get us to bowl games, your statement that this is some new level of recruiting is VERY disputable.

        • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

          A couple things.

          1. You’re missing the point. The point is that NU’s recruiting classes have gradually improved over the last five years or so. Obviously it’s not an overnight thing. But it’s ridiculous to say recruiting hasn’t improved in the last five years. That’s naive.

          2. NOW, NU is seed as a competitive program, and as I note in the article, that’s why it’s getting better players. If you think people see it as “very competitive” and always have, you’re very naive, because if that were the case, why haven’t the recruiting classes always been great?

          3. I’m not attacking the program by saying it’s been getting better kids lately. I’m just stating facts. Of course NU has gotten some good players in other years, but it’s consistently doing it more now. That’s pretty indisputable.

        • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

          Actually, I’ll do the work for you.

          2002: 54, 2003: 67, 2004: 71, 2005: 51, 2006: 71, 2007: 56, 2008: 69, 2009: 69, 2010: 58, 2011: 59, 2012: 48, 2013: 47, 2014: 31 (but with many more top prospects on the table/with NU at the top of their lists).

          So to suggest that this year’s class isn’t better than others so far is absolutely ridiculous.

          • gocatsgo2003

            Well, the issue there is presuming that recruiting rankings in and of themselves have merit. For a litany of reasons, I think they’re pretty much worthless and it is impossible to judge a recruiting class until about three years into their collective collegiate career.

            Northwestern’s on-field success is a great example of why this is the case. Based on their star ratings and class ranking, that class of 2006 should have been awful and the classes of 1996 and 1997 should have been world-beaters. Instead, it was the class of 2006 that changed the culture of Northwestern football, won a TON of football games, and put two guys into the NFL to boot.

            There’s always the old causation vs. correlation discussion, but that’s the fun of the whole back-and-forth.

          • gocatsgo2003

            (Addendum)

            Yes, I realize that the classes of 1996 and 1997 formed the core of the 2000 B1G title team. However, the greater point is that those classes should have been national title contenders based on recruiting rankings. Instead, their claim to fame was an 8-3 record in a year where five B1G teams won 8 games and an absolute shellacking in the Alamo Bowl that sent us back to being “just Northwestern” instead of national title contenders.

    • Ralph Johnson

      I agree 100%. It’s a shame to see this misleading article linked on the ESPN Big Ten blog.

      • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

        Outstanding “argument.” Feel free to make some actual points about it. I made plenty to support this pretty basic fact — over time, NU’s recruiting classes have improved — in multiple comments below.

      • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

        And as I wrote below, here’s how NU has done with all of its classes since recruiting rankings started.

        2002: 54, 2003: 67, 2004: 71, 2005: 51, 2006: 71, 2007: 56, 2008: 69, 2009: 69, 2010: 58, 2011: 59, 2012: 48, 2013: 47, 2014: 31 (but with many more top prospects on the table/with NU at the top of their lists).

        You can’t argue that this class isn’t better than others so far, has has the potential to be much better.

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