Any sense of a slow or gradual climb to Big Ten and national contention was accelerated last season when Northwestern shocked most regional and national pundits by not only winning 10 games and falling three blown-second half leads short of a Legends Division title, but earning the program’s first bowl win in more than 60 years during a season where most pegged the Wildcats to finish somewhere around seven or eight wins. Another mere bowl appearance, outcome aside, was viewed as the most reasonable goal in 2012-13, and anything beyond that was ahead of Northwestern’s growing curve.
When the Wildcats blew the roof off those conservative predictions, when Venric Mark morphed into one of the most explosive backfield threats in the country, when the defensive line clogged holes and collapsed pockets and posted some of the better rush defense numbers in the Big Ten, when a two-quarterback system fraught with early risk turned into a scary good asset by the end of the season, it was easy to see why a sizable portion of college football observers might have been caught off guard.
True freshman offensive lineman Brad North was not. His saw the high-win total, even if his specific projection landed just short of reality.
“I saw an eight or nine-win season,” North said when asked to describe his preseason expectations for the Wildcats. “A lot of people didn’t expect it, but I knew being around some of the players, I could just tell. There was a spark there.”
Nearing one year since his June 8th commitment to the Wildcats, North couldn’t be more excited about how far the program, and the outlook of its short-term future, has come. He was one of the highlights of a 2013 class that includes two other offensive line prospects (tackles Sam Coverdale and Blake King), a continuation of the recent surge in O-line recruiting that has seen the Wildcats land seven offensive line recruits over the past two seasons.
That dynamic is a challenging scenario for North – “It’s a little bit of pressure. It’s a really good offensive line and really good offense in general,” he said – but he welcomes the competitiveness if it means helping to continue the Wildcats recent upswing in winning momentum. In fact, there were times this season when, while watching some of Northwestern’s games at home, North was eager to circumvent his college admission and join his team ahead of schedule.
A year is a long time to wait, and doubly so for a naturally enthusiastic player like North. The Wildcats’ winning ways and outwardly brimming confidence raised North’s level of excitement in advance of what he believes to be another successful season. “Coach Fitzgerald is fired up about the program,” he said. “I wanted to get up to speed on things. It just looked like everyone was having fun out there. It seemed like a really great atmosphere.”
Ten wins and a GatorBowl win were major steps, and North enjoyed every step of the ride. But he wasn’t exactly stunned – as were many paid media types and other evaluators of college football performance – by the Wildcats’ success, nor does he believe their ceiling lies at double-digit wins and a mid-tier bowl win. He has bigger aspirations. “Honestly I could see this team being a top-ten team and competing for the Rose Bowl.” Getting there, even after a 10-win season and with almost every starter of note returning in 2013, would be another huge step up in Northwestern’s upward climb, and North is fully prepared to ensure the Wildcats are building from the ground up to sustain the positive momentum.
When North did finally commit to the Wildcats, he had more than 10 other offers on the table. What sealed his decision was the chemistry between players and coaches, and the general sense he got that Fitzgerald and his staff were a group that “cares about their players,” as opposed to other programs where coaches “care about their jobs.” The coaching staff’s genuine approach resonated with North on several levels, and now, as he prepares to join his team this summer, North is spreading Fitzgerald’s message.
Fellow Allen, Texas product Tay Evans, a 2014 outside linebacker, has been subject to North’s personal recruiting pitch, and the strides made in that respect are not lost. “I see the recruiting aspect picking up,” North said.
Soon enough, North will get his chance. Conversations with coaches have North thinking he’s almost certain to take a redshirt this season, but that’s not stopping him – nor most of the rest of the 2013 class, according to North – from getting on campus early this summer on their own volition for classes and team lifting sessions. North said Fitzgerald encourages players, freshmen included, to enjoy their summers at home, but the 2013 class would have none of it. North and co. are eager to get a head start on their four-year (or five) journey.
Over the past year, North has connected with many of the other 2013 commits – he was exchanging text messages with King just this week – and believes the group shares his general positive mindset and has is more than ready to make an immediate impact.
“It’s about getting my feet wet and trying to learn how to balance that routine between practice and school,” North said in reference to his decision to arrive on campus early for summer school and team lifting. “We all just want to be here.”
A year spent waiting and anticipating is coming to a close. The 2013 class is ready to become the next group to help further Northwestern’s push towards bigger and better things. Double-digit wins and a snapped decades-long postseason streak were nice starting points, and North enjoyed watching his program of choice grow. He’s even more excited to get there himself and leave his own mark on the Wildcats. “You’re going in the first year to make a name for yourself,” he said.
Excited for himself, for his team, for Northwestern’s inroads in the recruiting world – in just a few months, North will combine that pent-up excitement with his own unique talents and project forth a mentally engaged and physically prepared on-field presence. Every hypothetical statement and observation will turn to internal reflections on his new school and team environments. Every future plan will become present-tense action. Every hope and desire will become easily influenced individual and team-specific goals. North will move from merely watching and spreading the word, to actively participating in the program he has nothing but the highest expectations for.