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.