A highly-touted prospect that has been on Northwestern’s radar for more than a year gave his verbal commitment to the Wildcats today. That prospect is Parrker Westphal, a four-star cornerback from Bolingbrook (IL) who held offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Arizona State, and a raft of other BCS programs before ending his hyper-analyzed recruitment to become Northwestern’s 15th verbal pledge of 2014. He's the second commitment of the day, after linebacker Hamilton Anoa'i committed earlier. This is arguably Northwestern’s biggest pickup of the 2014 class, and it adds another esteemed talent to a group many consider the Wildcats’ best recruiting haul ever.
School: Bolingbrook (IL)
Other offers: Cincinnati, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, West Virginia
What’s the hype?
Following Westphal’s recruitment was maddening – he rarely spoke to the media, and when he did, Westphal didn’t really give any strong indications one way or another. He was long considered a Michigan “lean,” but the Wolverines cooled on him after receiving their second defensive back commitment (three-star Brandon Watson) in late June. This summer, Westphal narrowed his choices to four finalists – Arizona State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Vanderbilt – and was believed to have Vanderbilt close behind the Wildcats before making his decision.
His offer list speaks for itself; Westphal is a talented cover corner with great size (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and playmaking ability. Westphal will likely play cornerback in college, but is more than capable of switching over to safety, given his size and sound tackling ability. Here’s a sample of what ESPN’s scouts had to say about Northwestern’s latest commitment:
Westphal is a talented, competitive football player who has great instincts and awareness on the football field which allows him to also excel on special teams. With continued technical polish to match his size and instinctive play, he could develop into a very good college corner.
The Wildcats’ success on the field of late has led to big gains on the recruiting trail, and commitments from players like running backs Justin Jackson and Austin Anderson, quarterback Clayton Thorson and tight end/defensive end Garrett Dickerson are proof to that effect. But none of Northwestern’s 2014 commitments to date are quite as highly regarded as Westphal. If it wasn’t clear before, surely it is now: the Wildcats are at the point where they can reach for the surrounding area’s most sought-after prospects and – in in a reversal from their previous status as mere bystanders in heated recruiting battles for top in-state prospects – have a legitimate chance at landing them.
That’s not a product of Westphal in and of himself – but of Northwestern’s gradual recruiting rise, capped off by this year’s arguably-best-ever class.
Where he fits in
This part is easy: Northwestern's cornerbacks improved over the season, but they aren't great. While Matthew Harris had a promising freshman season, Daniel Jones tore his ACL against Cal, and it's unclear how he will play after recovering from major knee surgery. Unless one of this year’s true freshmen – Keith Watkins or Marcus McShepard – step up and challenge for a starting spot in 2014, Northwestern is likely to enter next season with the same promising but arguably thin cornerback group. They certainly improved during the season, and Harris and Dwight White should benefit from another offseason of reps, but adding Westphal will still be a big plus for the unit.
Landing Westphal – who has the athleticism and skills-based potential to potentially to play right away -- could give Northwestern an immediate starting-caliber player in a position of need — of course, if he does stay at corner. There’s always some measure of reluctance to start first-year players at cornerback. But for the few elite prospects who can compete at the upper echelons of college competition right out of high school, most players need time to acclimate themselves to the pace, physicality and pressurized atmosphere of FBS football.
Maybe Westphal will be ready to play right away. I’m not sure – we’ll need to wait until training camp to render a final verdict. But if Northwestern’s cornerbacks don’t improve over the course of this year, and no one emerges in spring practice, it’s not crazy to think Westphal could – to Pat Fitzgerald’s customary chagrin – forgo a redshirt season and enter the cornerback mix from the start. Northwestern could use an impact player at his position, no doubt. The question is whether Westphal will be ready by next fall, or whether he’s better off sitting out one year to work on some of the things – technical refinement, scheme knowledge, etc – high schoolers often need to dust off before playing.
And even if he’s not ready to jump in right away, Westphal can be an impact player sometime down the line (or contribute on special teams, while working in as a reserve corner), whether as a redshirt freshman or sophomore or upperclassman. In a summer defined by mini recruiting triumphs, Westphal may end up being the biggest prize of all.