As I'm sure you all know, Pat Fitzgerald is extremely proud of the terrific young men who he is adding to the Northwestern football family. That's par for the course for any coach's National Signing Day press conference. However, while there were plenty of cliches to go around,
Fitzgerald actually said some interesting developments pertaining to the program as a whole came out of NU's presser. A look at the biggest takeaways from Ditka's in Chicago:
1. A change in the recruiting policy?
For awhile, Pat Fitzgerald has made it clear that if a player visits other schools when committed to Northwestern, he will pull his scholarship. He compared it to marriage when talking with InsideNU in 2012:
“If you tell me you want to go date some other girl, some other schools, I can promise you our wedding is off and I’m not going to continue to recruit them,” he said. “We’re just not going to do that.”
However, that "policy" has appeared to waver a bit this year. Our own Chris Johnson discussed it in-depth in January, and it looked like things were changing when Jordan Thomas, a former NU commit, decided to take a visit to Oklahoma. Thomas ended up committing to the Sooners, but said that, at least at the beginning, he still had an NU offer and was a Wildcat commit. Recruiting is all based on what the players say, and maybe Thomas was bluffing, but if that was true, it would have contradicted NU's stance with 2013 linebacker Ray Davison, who had his offer pulled when he visited Cal. It would also contradict former NU commit Noah Westerfield, who also had his offer pulled because he visited Cal:
Westerfield said a #Northwestern assistant told him, "If you take a visit, we're going to take your scholarship."
— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 5, 2014
However, Fitzgerald said today that this "policy" he has discussed isn't really a policy.
"I don't have a policy to hand you," he said. "I don't know what that is. There's been an Internet-made policy.
It seems that, in general, Fitzgerald just wants recruits to be honest. That means it could change on a recruit-by-recruit basis.
"I think you guys make way too big of a deal about a lot of things, that being one of them," Fitzgerald said. "At the end of the day, we're going to do what's right for Northwestern, period. We're going to do what's right for our program, we're going to protect our program, we're going to protect it by doing things the right way with integrity and honesty, and if we don't get it in return, we're going to move on to the next kid."
There will be a lot of speculation about this, and I don't think it's fair to assume it all has to do with how good the recruit is, though Fitzgerald isn't helping himself by leaving this policy/non-policy open to interpretation.
However, it will be interesting to see if NU softens its stance on commits taking visits in the future. At least now, there's no "policy" standing in the way.
2. "Systemic Change"
Today was a historic Signing Day for Northwestern, in that the Wildcats brought in their first early enrollee of the Pat Fitzgerald era, and would have brought in their first grayshirt players (Jared McGee) had Hamilton Anoa'i not flipped his commitment to Cal in the 11th hour. Fitzgerald was asked about the reason for that, and he gave a pretty interesting answer:
"There's been some systemic change within the university that's allowed us to have some more flexibility," he said.
Later, I asked him to expand on that, particularly about whether that had to do just with the ability to allow players to enroll early and grayshirt, or also included changed academic standards. His response was hilarious:
Fitz: "No, it has nothing to do with either of those. It's just, it gives us an opportunity to do that. You confused?"
Me: "Little bit."
Fitz: "Good, that's code for none of your business."
Aside from the absolute absurdity of 1) the blatant contradiction in the first answer, and 2) telling the media and fans that these apparently important "systemic changes" are none of their business, this did show that the door is now open for early enrollees and greyshirts.
Early enrollees will obviously help players who could receive early playing time get some extra practices in during the spring. The grayshirt issue is a bit more complicated. It essentially means that the player can't be on scholarship until January of the next season, and they'll often go to a community college during the fall so they don't have to pay their way at an expensive school like NU. The Wildcats had planned to do that with Jared McGee, but didn't have to once Hamilton Anoa'i dropped out of the class.
Grayshirting has raised some ethical questions at SEC schools, because it can be used as an insurance policy to make sure teams don't oversign. However, it seems pretty straightforward at NU — players will just know up front that, scholarship-wise, they're technically a member of the next class.
One thing to note is that this likely doesn't have anything to do with academic standards. There were never specific standards before that players had to meet — it's all on admissions — and I wouldn't expect that to change. However, it will be interesting to see if NU utilizes grayshirts more in the future.
- Fitz didn't have any updates on the new football practice facility. He said that they project a basic timeline to recruits, but refused to do so publicly. NU has yet to break ground on the new facility, and by all accounts, fundraising is not complete.
- Fitz really does not like the Internet. He made jokes about it even when those jokes didn't apply to the question. But he also said it's great for fans. So who knows.
- Fitz said that Justin Jackson's high school numbers are the best since NU running back greats Damien Anderson and Tyrell Sutton. That's high praise.