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Take Two: Will a True Freshman Start for Northwestern Football in 2014?

In roughly six weeks, Northwestern will officially welcome a 15-member recruiting class ranked 41st in the country by 247Sports and considered arguably the best in program history. The group is highlighted by four four-star players (defensive back Parrker Westphal, tight end Garrett Dickerson, running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson) and includes a host of promising three-stars. Most of these players won’t see the field in their first season on campus, but there are a few who likely will. There could be an even smaller number that – like cornerback Matthew Harris last season – earn starting spots. Perhaps none of the true freshmen will work their way up to the top of their respective position’s depth chart. Let us know what you think in the comment section. 


Let me be clear, I'm not saying a freshman is going to start from the get-go. Knowing Pat Fitzgerald's loyalty toward upperclassmen, it's pretty unlikely that a freshman starts in the opener against Cal. I'm not sure a freshman — true or redshirt — will start all year. But for argument's sake, I think there's a decent chance it could happen.

I think there's a chance redshirt freshman defensive tackle Eric Joraskie could be in the mix to start, or at least see a lot of playing time, down the road. Northwestern will need help at defensive tackle and he's received good reviews. However, the focus of today's piece is on true freshmen. At first glance, there are a few freshmen that most people would think have a chance to play — running back Justin Jackson, cornerback Parrker Westphal and tight end/defensive end Garrett Dickerson. There are a lot of other talented players in the class, and there will surely be some underrated ones, but judging off a combination of perceived talent and positional need, those three look to have the best chance.

NU will be stacked at running back, but Jackson has put up monster numbers in high school and the Wildcats could use a back to compete with Treyvon Green and Warren Long, and complement Venric Mark. Still, will Jackson ever reach "starter" status with Mark in the mix? Barring injuries, it's highly doubtful.

The next possibility is Dickerson, who was on top of the recruiting wish list for a lot of NU fans. However, it's yet to be determined what position he'll play. If he plays tight end, he'll likely go into fall camp as No. 4 on the depth chart, behind Dan Vitale, Mark Szott and Jayme Taylor, who the coaches have apparently given rave reviews. Sure, Dickerson has the talent to work his way up the depth chart, but it would be very tough for him to get the starting job, especially with the dependable Vitale holding that spot. At defensive end, NU already has three "starters" in Ifeadi Odenigbo, Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. There wouldn't be room for Dickerson to start there, though he could maybe work his way into the rotation.

The most obvious choice is Westphal. He has a lot of players in front of him, but if there was ever a recruit you could project to be ready to start right away, it's Westphal. First off, the Wildcats have talent at corner, but there are no "shutdown corners" ahead of him. Fitz might be loyal to upperclassmen, but if Westphal is good enough, he'll eventually get a look. Fitz isn't a big fan of talking up freshmen, but NU threw Westphal a social media party when he committed. Part of that is because it's the first time they've ever been able to, per NCAA rules — Westphal is enrolling early, more on that later — but it also struck me as a sign that NU's staff expects a lot out of Westphal. He turned down Ohio State, Michigan and Florida, among others, to attend NU, and he's clearly part of the Wildcats' future vision.

Since Westphal is enrolling early, he'll be able to participate in spring practice. The biggest issue for freshmen right away is learning the scheme of the offense or defense, and Westphal will learn that in the spring. He's the first ever early enrollee under Fitz, and that could go a long way toward him receiving a starting job as a freshman.

We'll let the process play out, and who knows, maybe Westphal won't be what the star ratings project, at least as a freshman. However, as far as December projections go, he's a better bet to start early in his career than almost any other recruit under Fitz.

- Kevin Trahan


My initial impulse when Kevin and I came up with this topic was to assume, without really putting much thought into it, that none of Northwestern’s true freshmen would play in 2014. Rare is the instance when Coach Pat Fitzgerald has decided to start a first-year player, or even an underclassman, over a junior or senior. That’s why I was so quick to get behind the idea that, no matter how talented the players in this class are – and despite the fact other true freshmen have started under Fitzgerald in previous years – none of them would start this season.

Then I looked at the class and quickly realized my assumption was short sighted. This is, after all, a really talented class with four really talented, four-star players – to say nothing of the many three-stars that undoubtedly be major contributors at some point. There are three players who, in my mind, could start this season: Westphal, Dickerson and defensive tackle Fred Wyatt.

It would be surprising if two of Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris and Daniel Jones are not starting at cornerback in 2014, but if only one of them is, Westphal is the likeliest candidate to take the other spot. Dickerson was recruited to Northwestern as a defensive end, but included #TightEnd in the tweet revealing his commitment, which means he could end up playing superback for the Wildcats. If that’s the case, Dickerson could conceivably supplant Dan Vitale – whose numbers slipped slightly this season – as the starter.Wyatt might be the most unlikely of the three to start. But given the Wildcats lose one starter at defensive tackle (Will Hampton) and another rotation player at the position, C.J. Robbins, has a worrisome injury history – there’s a very small possibility that Wyatt, who should be fully recovered from an ACL tear by preseason camp, could earn a starting spot (redshirt freshman Eric Joraskie is a better candidate).

It’d be unwise to write off the possibility of those players starting, unlikely as it may seem from this distance. Few would have expected at this time last year that Harris would become a starter last season, or that, months before the 2012 season, Vitale would. Maybe one of those three, or another player I didn’t mention, will earn a starting spot. But after thinking about it for a while, I came to the realization that I can’t make a strong enough case for any one player – not yet, at least. Which is why, with great trepidation, I’m going to say no, none of Northwestern’s true freshmen will start in 2014.

I will likely be proven wrong. One of these players is bound to earn a starting spot – whether because of injury or an established starter’s possible regression or some other cause. One of the most highly touted recruited classes in program history is bound to have one or more players prepared to step into a starting spot.

“Oh, one of the true freshmen will start. I don’t know who, but It’ll happen,” just doesn’t really seem like a good explanation. If that seems like an easy way out, it sort of is. But it’s also better than the alternative (the quote written above).

I look forward to revisiting this post in October.

- Chris Johnson