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Despite ugly season, Northwestern keeps 2014 class together

Amid all the frustration of Northwestern’s 5-7 season, it wouldn’t have been surprising if a few of the Wildcats’ 2014 commits decided to look elsewhere. One of their top-rated former commitments, four-star athlete Dareian Watkins, had his scholarship offer revoked after he visited Wisconsin, but that was the product of a unique circumstance we still don’t know everything about. None of Northwestern’s recruits de-committed because the Wildcats took a major step back this season or because they lost faith in the direction of the program. More than any conference win the Wildcats, with a bit more luck, could have notched this season, that stability bodes well for Northwestern’s future.

And not only did Northwestern keep its 2014 recruiting class together, it filled it out by earning commitments from two highly-rated players long considered unlikely to pick the Wildcats. The additions of four-star prospects Garrett Dickerson and Parrker Westphal – both of whom held offers from a host of top-tier BCS programs – bumped Northwestern up to no. 38 in 247’s national class rankings. Westphal, Dickerson and surprise two-star linebacker commit Hamilton Anoa’i all gave their verbal pledges after a long commitment drought between July 8, when three-star defensive end Noah Westerfield committed, and December.

Northwestern played out its ugly 2013 season in that window, which is why Dickerson and Westphal’s commitments were even more surprising. If there was a time when the two-four star prospects might have second-guessed their devotion to the Wildcats, or when some of the players already committed to Northwestern might have considered leaving, it would have been during the 2013 season. Instead, Northwestern added two four-stars and kept its class together.

Signing day won’t be here for more than a month, so it’s possible one or more of the 2014 commits could leave for another school. Right now, though, it appears all 15 class members are on board and here to stay.

Things could have gone so much worse for Northwestern. Consider future Big Ten member Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights, who slipped to 6-6 this season (pending Pinstripe Bowl result) after going 9-4 last season – and dealt with a torrent of negative publicity surrounding former redshirt freshman defensive back Jevon Tyree’s allegations that defensive coordinator Dave Cohen verbally abused and threatened him – lost six commitments from its 2014 class, including three in one 24-hour window.

The Wildcats, who saw their 2012 win total cut in half this season, could have been in danger of losing many of their top prospects. That hasn’t happened to date, and it doesn’t appear any of them are having second thoughts about their commitments. In a recent phone conversation, four-star running back Justin Jackson said Northwestern’s struggles in 2013 have served as motivation for he and his classmates. “If anything, it makes us more excited to get down there,” he said.

That comment seems to back up what Pat Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein after Westphal announced his commitment last week. “One year doesn’t define anything,” Fitzgerald said. “We were not a bad team, we were a team that had a bad record (5-7). Big difference. And the (recruits) who watched us saw how resilient our guys were and wanted to be a part of that.”

Most of the 2015 prospects I’ve talked to that Northwestern is recruiting have similar thoughts. “I see them as the 10-win team from last year,” Darrin Kirkland Jr., a four-star linebacker from Indianapolis, said in November when asked which season (10-win 2012 or 5-win 2013) was more indicative of the program’s current state. “I really like where the program is headed. I think they [Northwestern] will be fine.”

Despite Kirkland’s (and other 2015 recruits’) comments, it’s hard to know what kind of effect the 2013 season will have on Northwestern’s 2015 class. Maybe it won’t be quite as highly-rated as the 2014 group, or maybe it will be. We will need to wait to find out. But the 2014 class – with the caveat that, while unlikely, any of Northwestern’s commitments could bolt before signing day – has remained intact despite the team’s immensely disappointing season.

Compared to the alternative (i.e. Rutgers), that’s a huge win.