It’s not that Pat Fitzgerald didn’t want Brett Walsh to verbally commit on July 17 of last year. He did. That didn’t stop Northwestern's coach from wondering how, just one week after extending a scholarship offer, Walsh had come to a firm consensus so quickly, just as a score of Pac-12 programs were starting to look at him more seriously.
The announcement took Fitzgerald and defensive backs coach Jerry Brown by surprise; Walsh’s decision came ahead of schedule, and Fitzgerald couldn’t help but request the no-weak-commitments assurance he requires as a baseline for any verbal pledge.
“Coach Fitz just wanted to make sure,” Walsh said Saturday. Without ever setting foot on Northwestern’s campus, Walsh knew….for “sure” – sure as a California-area prospect committing to a Big Ten school can ever be. The natural inclination for the best California high school football players is to attend Pac-12 programs, and early in his highschool playing days Walsh was swept up into the Golden State’s cultural tide of college choice.
When he opened up to other ideas, to the possibility of playing in a different conference in a different part of the country, Walsh, ironically enough, was moved by a strong recommendation from a Pac-12 alumnus. One of his stepfather’s close friends, Jonathan Himebauch, now the offensive line coach at Wake Forest, played against Fitzgerald's NU team with USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl, and the impression he got from other players (Fitzgerald sat out with a broken leg) led to an earnest appraisal Walsh just couldn’t ignore.
Hearing about Fitzgerald’s gameday enthusiasm and passion and was a confirmation of what Walsh already knew. “It’s a big deal for me to play for an intense guy like him,” Walsh said. His stepdad, another USC alum, co-signed Himebauch’s message. Walsh’s parents backed his decision, Walsh was ready to commit and had seen quite enough of the Pac-12’s frustratingly fleeting recruiting ploys – everything from false promises to unexpected offers for other players at the same position, and other crooked unethical behavior in between – to know he was making the right decision.
“My parents were sold on Northwestern,” he said. “Once I committed, I knew.”
The opportunity to play in the Big Ten at a prestigious academic institution met Walsh’s rough formula for an ideal prospective college football experience. The Wildcats’ recruiting approach and genuine transparency throughout the process erased any lingering uncertainty.
Unlike many of the other Pac-12 programs that recruited him, Northwestern targeted Walsh for his ability to cover in space and make plays sideline to sideline and project seamlessly in Fitzgerald’s smallish but agile linebacker mold. Walsh, who stands 6’2’’, 205 pounds, appreciated Northwestern’s forward-looking approach.
He was going to put on weight. He was going to add muscle. The athleticism and playmaking instincts were already permanently ingrained in his football DNA. Fitzgerald and Brown knew exactly the type of talent they were recruiting.
Current safety/linebacker-tweener physique aside, Walsh would be a player, and Pac-12 programs were making a huge mistake passing on a player who, over the course of his four-year career at Monrovia (Calif.), compiled 417 tackles, won three consecutive (CIF) conference championships and averaged – wait for it – 23.5 tackles per game in his senior season.
It’s no small wonder why, when they offered Walsh a scholarship, and received the response they were looking for just seven days later, Fitzgerald and Brown needed Walsh to explain himself. When you really think about it, the initial shock felt towards the timing of his decision isn’t all that difficult to comprehend.
“They recruited me off my athleticism,” he said. “Other schools said I needed to meet a certain weight. With Northwestern, it was like ‘he’s a player, he’s a gamer’. I’m not the biggest linebacker, but I’ll run around and chase you down.”
At the time of his commitment, Walsh said he knew he was joining a program with a bright future. What about 10 wins, a convincing bowl victory, a huge recruiting surge, a likely AP top-20 preseason ranking and a real opportunity to compete for a Big Ten championship as early as early as this season? “That stuff’s just icing on the cake,” he said. “I’m real excited.”
On June 23, Walsh will report to Evanston hoping to land a spot on Northwestern’s first-team roster. He understands the steep competition he faces at linebacker, and realizes the likelihood of a redshirt season. Walsh just wants to compete, and if the situation calls, contribute on special teams or as a reserve linebacker.
“I’m going to give it my all,” he said.
Most freshmen don’t enter their first seasons on campus truly excited for a possibility of a redshirt year. Walsh isn’t resigned to that option, either, and his intentions should say more for Fitzgerald than the typical first-year player’s blissful exuberance.
He should take Walsh’s ambitions a little more seriously. Fitzgerald wouldn’t want to be caught off guard again.