After the commitment of four star wide receiver Dareian Watkins on Monday, more than a few people posed the question: is this shaping up to be the best class in Northwestern's history? Watkins is the seventh member of a class that includes another four star and five three stars. NU commits have turned down such schools as Nebraska, Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State and many more this year to go to NU. The Wildcats have some incredible momentum on the recruiting trail, and there is the potential for a lot more to come — Auston Anderson holds a Texas offer but has NU as his No. 1 school, while four star Justin Jackson also places the Wildcats at the top of his list.
But is this class the best ever — or at least, can it be? Considering how recent recruiting rankings are in the scheme of things, it's tough to judge where this class fits in with classes in the 1950s and 60s, and to make such a statement would often risk hyperbole. But without a doubt, this is shaping up to be Pat Fitzgerald's best class and the best NU class of the recruiting rankings era. Is it the best ever? You'd certainly have a compelling argument for that.
Before Watkins' commitment, NU was already reaching uncharted territory in the recruiting rankings. After Tommy Doles' commitment on Friday, ESPN's Jared Shanker noted that this might already be NU's best class in history. Now with Watkins on board and likely at least one of the two star running backs — Anderson and Jackson — this class definitely has top 25 potential. If NU pulls a coup and can get Garrett Dickerson or Parrker Westphal, NU fans might just wonder if they've suddenly got a big-time program in Evanston. As Sippin on Purple's Rodger Sherman said, "If Northwestern's been playing winning football with average-at-best recruiting, what happens now when they can get guys everybody wants?"
The answer to that question will have to wait, because recruiting success doesn't always turn into success on the field, but getting more talent is never a bad thing. Now the question becomes, can this continue? Recruiting can often be like a game of dominos — when the success in recruiting starts, it keeps on improving. Kids notice when programs are starting to gain momentum. Solomon Vault, who turned down Tennessee and Nebraska to go to NU, certainly noticed.
“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.”
It's tough to say exactly what the reason for this initial wave has been. The lakefront practice facility and the school's commitment to invest in football certainly has helped. So has winning a bowl game and just winning in general. And maybe kids are just starting to buy into Fitzgerald's vision of what NU's football program can be — a winner that also provides its players with a quality education. Before, rightfully or not, the perception was that it could only provide the latter.
Regardless of your opinion on recruiting rankings and how they transition to collegiate success, it's tough to deny the talent haul the Wildcats have brought in to start the 2014 class. And barring some unexpected disappointments, a couple more high-level players should follow. A win on the field counts more than a win in recruiting, but if this kind of recruiting keeps up — a big "if" — the wins on the field will come far more often.
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