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A look back at Fitz' first signing class: The defense


Yesterday, I took a trip into the wayback time machine to look at the offensive recruits from our 2007 class, which signed with NU after Fitz' not-so-good rookie season as head coach and just months after Randy Walker passed away.

Today, let's look at the defensive guys. But first, I think it's worth mentioning again what a leap of faith this class took in committing to NU given the events on and off the field the previous 12 months. It's a wonder that opposing coaches didn't poach any of these guys, though they certainly tried. I found various articles about how, for instance, Tim Brewster at Minnesota tried to pry Bryce McNaul away, and how David Arnold nearly decommitted.

Certainly they've been a huge part of the success NU has experienced the last few years, and as I said yesterday, this class has a good chance to be the winningest class in NU history. During his press conference on signing day, Fitz, who previously was the team's recruiting coordinator, acknowledged the uncertainty that recruits had about the program.

"When we lost coach (Walker), the kids that we had committed to the program were as crushed as each and every one of us were, because they had gotten to know coach extremely well throughout the process," Fitz said. "They just wanted to make sure that their scholarship was honored, and of course, we're going to do that. They didn't bat an eye, and I'm very proud of those young men for doing that."

Hats off to Fitz and his staff for bringing in these 19 guys, whom ranked as the 53rd best recruiting class in the nation. Analyst Tom Lemming told the Daily Northwestern on signing day that year that the class "ranks with Walker's best classes and Barnett's best classes."

Hit a jump for a closer look at the defensive recruits.

Vince Browne, Defensive End, Lisbon, Ohio

WHAT FITZ SAID: Vince had his senior year cut short by a knee injury, but should be healthy by the time we get to Kenosha.  A big athlete with a huge frame to grow, you can see why here at linebacker, we fell in love with him from day one.  Tremendous speed and a relentless nature of getting to the football, Vince's future is extremely bright. We expect him to come in and play defensive end for us, and he continues to grow, he should be a dominant player at the Big Ten level.

Browne is a beast on the defensive line and probably the team's top NFL draft prospect. For a while, when Corey Wootton was still with the Wildcats, we had a pretty stellar defensive line, with Wootton and Browne bookending John Gill and Adam Hahn. These days, Browne gets the double team treatment from opposing offensive lines, but he's still managed to be a disruptive force. He was a consensus preseason All-Big Ten selection. Browne was a three-star recruit who chose NU over Colorado, West Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse, Kansas and Indiana.


Jordan Mabin, Cornerback, Northfield Center, Ohio

WHAT FITZ SAID: Jordan is a very physical player as you can see from this rep. A talented two-way athlete in high school, Jordan will play corner for us next year. He possesses great hips and feet, and can change direction on a dime as you can see here. His skills will make him an impact player at the corner position in our defensive secondary. An athlete that amassed over 8,000 yards of total offense, he should also be a productive member of our special forces unit on special teams. He comes from a great football family, with his father playing at Louisville, and his uncles also playing at the collegiate level.

Mabin was a decorated running back out of Ohio, finishing his high school career as the state's No. 6 career rushing leader. But at NU, he's been a mainstay at cornerback ever since his redshirt freshman year. Mabin gets some grief from NU fans for his coverage skills; I actually think he's a pretty solid corner. He led the Big Ten in passes defended last year, though that may be one of those stats that is somewhat of a backhanded compliment. He got burned badly on a fake punt last year against Michigan State, which sparked the Spartan's comeback. But he's generally been really solid in defending the pass and in run support, and this year, opposing quarterbacks are noticeably avoiding passing in his direction. He's probably a bit undersized to sustain an NFL career, but he might get a look late in the draft. He was a three-star recruit who chose NU over Pitt, Cincinnati and Indiana, among others.


Brian Peters, Safety, Pickerington, Ohio

WHAT FITZ SAID: We are actually going to start Brian off in the secondary at the safety position for us next year.  He's got a big frame (at 6'4") to grow and as you can see a very physical football player.   A great all-around athlete, he lettered in track, baseball, and basketball throughout his career.  He was also Pickerington Central's kicker, and went 53 out of 55 on PAT's, and four out of 8 on field goals.  This big athlete has a tremendous upside on our defensive side of the field.

Peters has made a name for himself with big hits and timely interceptions. He famously took an INT to the house in the Wrigley Field game, setting the student section off.  He also had a huge pick against Iowa last year that helped NU come back to beat the Hawkeyes yet again. He was the team's leading tackler last year, which isn't exactly something you want from your safety, but he's got good instincts for the ball. He was selected to several preseason All-Big Ten teams this year, which speaks well of the two-star recruit who chose NU over Cincinnati and several MAC schools.


Jack DiNardo, defensive end, Hinsdale, Illinois

WHAT FITZ SAID: Jack comes from a great football family: not only his father, but also two of his uncles played at the collegiate level, one here at Northwestern.   Jack will play defensive end for us next year, and possesses great initial quickness and, as you can see from these reps, a tremendous motor to get to the football.  As he continues to get stronger and gain size, we expect great things from Jack in the future.

DiNardo is the nephew of BTN analyst and former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo. He's also the nephew of former Wildcat John Vorhees. Though he was recruited as a defensive end, DiNardo currently plays defensive tackle. He missed the Eastern Illinois and Army games earlier this year with an injury, but came back against Illinois with six tackles, including a sack. DiNardo has a fun little feature on called the Jack DiNardo Show.  He was a three-star recruit who chose NU over Kansas State and a few MAC schools.


Bryce McNaul, Linebacker, Eden Prairie, Minnesota

WHAT FITZ SAID: Bryce led Eden Prairie to a state championship this year.  When you look for linebackers, you look for guys who can cover the field from sideline to sideline, and show up to the football in a bad mood.  As you can see from these reps, Bryce is an extremely physical player.  He possesses great instincts, can diagnose blocking schemes and plays, and likes to play downhill and finish at the ball carrier.  Bryce has a very bright future, and can play a number of different linebacker positions.

McNaul has established himself as the team's starting will linebacker after battling injuries earlier in his career. So far, he leads the team in tackles this year with 31. He's a solid linebacker, and as long as he stays healthy, he should continue to be one of the leaders on defense. McNaul was a three-star recruit who had offers from Illinois, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Iowa State and others.


Ben Johnson, Linebacker, Summers, Wisconsin

WHAT FITZ SAID: Ben was in our camp this summer, and you have to love his athleticism for his size.  A tall athlete who's played numerous positions, most of this tape will show him playing safety.  We project Ben as an outside linebacker for us, and his sure tackling ability is what excites us the most.  A tremendous all-around athlete, he advanced to the state finals last year for the long jump, but also holds the school record for the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes.

Johnson, who came to NU as a safety, has been an off-and-on starter at linebacker throughout his NU career, and this season, he's being pushed by redshirt freshman Collin Ellis. Johnson is a rangy athletic guy with good speed, and he's been primarily used in pass coverage. A two-star recruit, he chose NU over Northern Illinois.


Niko Mafuli, Defensive Tackle, St. Louis, Missouri

WHAT FITZ SAID: Niko was in our camp this summer, and from the minute he stepped on the field, impressed us with his power and explosiveness. A two-way player in high school, playing guard and defensive line, Niko will play defensive tackle for the Wildcats in the future.  A multi-sport athlete, he threw the shot and disc and also played hockey while attending St. Louis University High School.  A powerful man, he's very explosive, and as you can see, also very athletic.

I would have loved to see the 300-pounder in skates playing hockey. Maybe he was like the fat guy in that old Nintendo hockey game, bowling over other players while skating like he's stuck in molasses. At any rate, Mafuli has battled conditioning issues throughout his career, finally cracking the starting lineup this season at defensive tackle after losing about 30 pounds in the offseason. He was a three-star recruit with offers from Wisconsin, Missouri, Utah and Hawaii, among others.


David Arnold, Safety, Copley, Ohio

WHAT FITZ SAID: David comes from a great football family.  As you see from these first few examples here on tape, he is a ferocious hitter.  He takes great angles to the football, and also possesses tremendous ball skills.  A two-way player in high school, David will play safety for us and should solidify our secondary.  As you can see here with the ball in hands, he has incredible foot quickness and can out run anyone.

Arnold has battled injuries during his career, but when healthy, he's been an effective guy in nickel packages as a hybrid safety/linebacker. He's a physical player and a sure tackler. He was dinged up earlier this year but is now back on the two-deep, backing up safety Ibrahim Campbell. A high-school track star in addition to a football standout, Arnold was a three-star recruit who chose NU over offers from Illinois, Indiana, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and several other schools.


Kevin Watt, Linebacker, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

WHAT FITZ SAID: Along with Colin Armstrong, Kevin was one of the first to commit to our class this spring.  A multi-sport athlete, he has played a lot of different positions on the football field: defensive end, running back and linebacker.  We believe he possesses great skills to be a tremendous outside linebacker in our defensive scheme. This big, physical player will not only have an impact as a linebacker, but also immediately on special teams.

A bit undersized at defensive end at 6'4", 245, Watt started 12 of 13 games last year, but this year, he's been really pushed by Tyler Scott. Our defensive line hasn't gotten as much pressure on opposing QBs as we might have hoped, so hopefully Watt can keep improving as the season goes along and, along with Scott, complement Browne on the other side of the defensive line. Watt was a three-star recruit, and he was the second recruit to verbally commit to NU that offseason, saying ‘yes' to the Wildcats in May 2006, before he got any other scholarship offers.


Michael Bolden, Cornerback, Evanston, Illinois

WHAT FITZ SAID: The local boy, Michael Bolden, first (NU) player from Evanston Township High School since '93, when I played with Leonard English.  As you can see from Michael, he's an extremely fast athlete.  Michael was one of seven signees that was in camp this summer, and as you can see from this play, he possesses tremendous speed. What also impressed us about Michael in camp was his ability to cover.  A multi-sport athlete at Evanston Township High School, Michael will be the first Wildkit to become a Wildcat in a number of years, and we're extremely excited about that.  Michael comes from a tremendous football family; he will play corner for us next year, and as you can see with his hands on the ball, he's a very elusive athlete.

Bolden generated quite a bit of buzz as a local product, and he had Wildcat fans excited about a potential cornerback tandem with Jordan Mabin. Rivals ranked him the 33rd best cornerback recruit and Mabin the 27th best, but Bolden never quite managed to crack the starting lineup. This year, he was moved to safety, and has served as the back-up to Brian Peters. He also has spent a lot of time on special teams. Bolden was a three-star recruit who chose NU over Illinois and Purdue.