Recruiting is a really complicated thing. In ways observable and not, the art of gripping the fleeting attention spans of prospects and attending high school workouts and combating recriminations from rival schools’ recruiting staffs involves maintaining a complex balance of ethical standards and cutthroat competition. Everybody wants the best players, and each and every school has a different array of features to offer – football facilities, academics, uniforms, obsessive fan bases hardwired to show up 80,000 strong on any given Saturday and scream like mad for three and a half yours. That kind of stuff.
The formula is never uniformly fixed, or even solidly whole. A recruiting pitch is an amorphous force, and a powerful one at that. Northwestern’s pitch may be the most interesting case study to investigate, because the Wildcats, arguably more than any other program, are seeing their recruiting success soar to new heights this offseason.
Plenty of reasons have been offered up to explain this. Winning a bowl game is important, and doubly so when it comes after a 64-year drought. Notching 10 wins and only barely missing out on one or two more victories is another positive sign. Academic reputation is a bonus for a certain subset of the pool of prospects any given year (and an incontrovertible hurdle for others).
The lost art of Northwestern’s recruiting boom is what the players actually say when they announce their commitments, and in 2014, the responses have overwhelmingly been about something most people fail to discuss when talking about recruiting.
These players are choosing to spend the majority of the next four (and in most cases, more than that) years of their lives with the same group of 100 or so players and coaches, often times in a distant locale, completely removed from the comforts of family life. That is a big commitment. The people matter.
“The guys reminded me of my friends at home,” Wilson, a 6’1’’, 185-pound receiver from Houston, Texas, said of his first unofficial visit to Northwestern. “I just thought it was a great social fit. I was really impressed with the character of the players and the coaches and the rest of the people I met.”
The visit to Northwestern was a convincing one, but Wilson wanted to wait and see what other offers came his way before making a decision. Cal came hard, offered Wilson a scholarship and hosted him for an unofficial visit. That trip out to beautiful Berkely, California, home to a prestigious academic institution and a typically bowl-attending Bears program, offered the perfect combination of climate, competitiveness and academic rigor to sway Macan’s convictions. Cal could have made a strong case.
Not even close. The Bears had a lot to offer, even during the program’s current lull, but they didn’t have the under-the-surface human factor Wilson cited as his primary reason for committing to the Wildcats. The connections formed with Northwestern players and coaches were tightly strung; no measure of California sunshine could sever that relationship.
“It was clear to me after visiting Cal,” Wilson said of his visit to Berkeley. “That Northwestern was definitely the better fit for me.”
The people pushed Wilson over the top. The offense – and its resemblance to his highschool system – turned his Wildcats love into an unrivaled on-field-off-field double. Coming out of Kincaid High School, where Wilson finished as the school’s all-time leading receiver with 4,000 yards and – get this – 71 touchdowns, Wilson saw a spread offense that could accentuate his speed and toughness and big-play ability.
A smooth schematic transition, and a massively successful NU receiver (Jeremy Ebert) thriving in the very position coaches told Wilson he would be playing (slot) one season earlier, convinced Wilson he could not only play but max-out his receiving talents with the Wildcats. It was exactly what he was looking for.
“I played in a spread offense in high school,” he said. “So the systems are kind of similar and it looked like something I could fit in really easily.”
In a few months, Wilson will get a chance to see if his prolific high school stats and stated offensive continuity measure up at the college level. He mentioned the possibility of playing his true freshman season. “Depending on how much weight I can get on, maybe I’ll have a chance to jump in there,” he said.
A redshirt season is the safer bet, which means Wilson may be forced to wait until next season to substantiate his double take-inducing high school credentials, but even so the spread offense and all its slot-involving elements aren’t going away.
Neither are the people. The same people that made Wilson feel at home, and made him decide to join the Wildcats, will be there as soon as he gets on campus. That’s a guarantee.