EVANSTON -- With players lounging around Northwestern's locker room during the down time before or after practice, conversations often spring up. Competitive by nature, these conversations often turn into debates. These are football players after all; competition runs in their blood. The debates are mostly playful, until it gets personal: Which recruiting class is the best.
Players from each class jockey for their group. Arguments are tossed out left and right.
"It's not even close," says redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker, a proud member of the 2013 recruiting class. "I mean, just look at this. Godwin Igwebuike. Tyler Lancaster. Keith Watkins. Matt Harris. Marcus McShepard. Kyle Quiero. I mean, it's not fair."
Walker along with the six classmates he mentioned -- all redshirt sophomores except for Harris, a junior -- have accounted for 317 tackles this season, about 42 percent of the total tackles made by Northwestern defenders in 2015. It's no secret the group has been one of main catalysts for what could end up as the winningest season in Northwestern history, with a chance for an 11th win in the Outback Bowl against Tennessee on Jan. 1.
The class was ranked No. 52 in the nation and the No. 11 in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports, about par for the course over the past five or so recruiting classes under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. And that ranking was helped a lot by the signing of four-star quarterback Matt Alviti, who has yet to even see much of the field in Evanston. Everyone else, including Walker, Igwebuike and co., was, according to scouting services, the same quality of recruit Northwestern had been getting for a number of years: solid, three-star prospects.
But regardless of what the ratings said about the class -- ratings which, according to Fitzgerald, are pretty much baseless -- Northwestern's staff could sense something special about the group as it began to take shape. "I felt like we won some pretty big battles with that recruiting class," Fitzgerald says.
The players felt it too. Almost all of them mention watching the other players' highlight tapes, trying to compare their skills to that of their future teammates. "I think we definitely had the idea that we were going to be nice," Igwebuike says.
"I considered myself pretty athletic, pretty fast, but I saw these guys out here competing with me, making me better," he continues. "Coming here, my man Marcus, he was the fastest. When we got here, everybody stepped up. I stepped up. Keith stepped up. Matt stepped up. We're doing sprinting workouts and you're this dude that just outran everybody in high school. And now you've got people right next to you. So I knew, 'Okay, I've gotta step my game up a little bit. I've got to work a little extra harder.'"
Along with that talent, though, the group is also extremely close, full of, as Fitzgerald calls it, "dynamic personalities."
As the always demonstrative Igwebuike glows about his teammates, Walker walks up to him, beaming. Interrupting Igwebuike's train of thought, Walker says, "Who's your best friend on the team?"
Without hesitation, Igwebuike, always with a sharp wit, jokes, "It's not you."
"He's a big teddy bear," Igwebuike says about Walker as he walks away sulking.
That teasing seemingly never stops. A few minutes later, while Marcus McShepard is speaking about the competition between the members of the 2013 recruiting class, Igwebuike and others gather around him, pretending to listen intently. As soon as McShepard pulls out the cliché "iron sharpens iron" to describe how his teammates fuel his work ethic, they all burst out laughing.
A couple weeks later, in the middle of Walker's discussion of the recruiting class, Matt Harris and Igwebuike both interrupt him, calling him "Franchise" while fawning at their All-Big Ten teammate.
"I'm their biggest fan," Walker says.
Igwebuike always seems to be at the center of any mischief, big or small, that goes on with his recruiting class. Toward the end of their freshman season, he says, the group got in trouble for their actions on and off the field.
"Freshman year," Walker says about the group's behavior, "we weren't playing at all so--"
"Shut your..." Igwebuike yells out of nowhere in an exaggerated, high-pitched voice, interrupting Walker yet again.
"I know it was Godwin that told you that we were bad when we were freshman," Walker continues, unfazed. "But you know the guys. They just wanted to have fun. But once we got on the field, we realized how serious this is."
Fitzgerald always knew the group had the potential to be great, but it was those "dynamic personalities" that got him a little worried when they first stepped on campus. "They needed a little bit of humility when they first came in," he says. "They thought they were really good. And I have no problem slicing that out. I think they responded very well to that."
With most of them, aside from Harris, having two more years of eligibility left, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz smiles when asked about how good this defense can be. He's seen them grow into the players they are now after struggling with the steep learning curve that often befalls college defenders.
"The key is that they aren't satisfied with how they're playing," he says, "that they strive to improve. They're always working to get better. The minute you think you've arrived, you're not because somebody's going to pass you up because they're working a little harder than you are. You have to be able to handle success as well as adversity. When things aren't going the way you want, you work harder to get something. But once you get it, are you going to keep working to get more or are you going to be satisfied with what you've got?"
While the answer to Hankwitz's question can't really be determined until spring practices when even more players from the class such as Quiero, Watkins and McShepard figure to step up into starting roles on defense, the competition from the class hasn't let up a bit.
Now, along with boasting about their own class's acumen, they are trying to recruit other players to join their class as honorary members. Their first target: true sophomore running back Justin Jackson.
Without Jackson there to defend himself, McShepard and Igweubike both assert that Jackson wishes he was a year older and part of the 2013 class instead of the 2014 one. But redshirt freshman linebacker Nate Hall, one of Jackson's best friends on the team, isn't taking it.
"He is what he is," Hall says. "I wish I was a lot of things too, but I'm not."
As McShepard and Igwebuike continue to work on Northwestern's star running back, Walker already knows his class is great.
"I mean, it's not close," he says with a swagger that has come to define the group. "We're the best recruiting class to ever come through."