After Northwestern's regular season ended with a 24-14 win over in-state rival Illinois at Soldier Field, head coach Pat Fitzgerald gathered with his seniors at midfield in the nearly empty stadium. They stood in a circle, arm-in-arm, still fully outfitted in their uniforms, cherishing not only this last regular season win, but all the ups and downs of the previous four or five seasons.
Fitzgerald and the seniors joined the rest of the team in the locker room, to celebrate some more. And after fulfilling his media obligations in the bowels of the stadium, he boarded a coach bus en route to Evanston and left. That night, as he so often reminds the media after each win, he wanted his team to cherish the victory, have some "good, clean, American fun." He might have even done so himself.
But while he gave his team the early part of the week off following a 10-2 season, Fitzgerald and his staff put that final win behind them. They had to. Another, more pressing, job was at hand: Recruiting.
The Latest on Northwestern Football
The Latest on Northwestern Football
For student-athletes, the month without games between the end of the regular season and bowl games is an opportunity for many things: rest, recovery, studying for finals, more practice to not only prep for the final game but also to get a head start on spring workouts. But it's also a time for recruiting.
And coming off what could be considered the program's best season in 20 years, this period looks to be huge for Northwestern.
By early December, most programs have their classes for the following year pretty much wrapped up and the focus turns to the year after next. Basically, many schools already know the vast majority of their 2016 classes now, so December becomes a time to really hone in on 2017. But this year is a bit different.
With all the coaching changes at high-major schools, players may begin to reopen their recruiting processes, giving a school like Northwestern, coming in with loads of momentum, a second look. There are also un-committed players in the 2016 class that may have been leaning toward a school like Michigan or Penn State, which look to be in the process of replacing their defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively, that Northwestern could pursue.
Northwestern has 19 commitments for its 2016 class, according to 247 Sports, giving it a few spots with which to play around.
The first target looks to be Jovan Swann, a three-star defensive tackle from Greenwood, Indiana. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound lineman has taken an official visit to Stanford in October after taking an official to Northwestern in September. Swann will reportedly take another official visit to Northwestern on Friday, Dec. 4. While 247's predictions indicated Swann was likely to choose Stanford, that could very well change now that Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have that win over Stanford in their back pocket. Swann also has offers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State and others.
Like Swann, wide receiver Nate Johnson has become a late target for the Wildcats. The three-star pass-catcher from Tennessee was offered by Northwestern on Nov. 17 and will take an official visit to Evanston in late January. Northwestern had easily the best season out of any other program actively recruiting him, two of which (Miami and South Carolina) don't have head coaches yet.
Here is a list of the 2016 players Northwestern has offered that are not yet committed, according to 247 Sports:
|NAME||POSITION||HOMETOWN||STARS||247 COMPOSITE RATING||OTHER SCHOOLS|
|Jovan Swann||DT||Greenwood, Indiana||3||.8640||Stanford, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Vanderbilt|
|Nate Johnson||WR||Thompson's Station, Tennessee||3||.8717||Miami, Purdue, South Carolina, Temple, Vanderbilt|
|Donald Stewart||WR||Paramus, New Jersey||3||.8457||Stanford, Auburn, Michigan|
|Geraud Sanders||WR||Dallas, Texas||2||.7967||Navy, Rice|
|Nick McCloud||CB||Rock Hill, South Carolina||3||,8289||Appalachian State, East Carolina, NC State|
|Martin Mangram||ATH||Buford, Georgia||3||.8333||Army, East Carolina, Iowa, Miami (OH), Syracuse, Wake Forest, Charlotte|
There are also players that Northwestern extended offers to that are committed to schools with some type of coaching change. While Northwestern will most likely wait until these players de-commit (if they ever do) to re-extend its offer there are some interesting names in this section.
Offensive tackle prospect Sam Schlueter committed to Minnesota in April and took an unofficial visit to Northwestern last November. The three-star lineman was recruited by offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who new Gopher head coach Tracy Claeys just fired. Schlueter is scheduled to take an official visit to Minnesota on Dec. 4. Other recruits who had committed to Minnesota have already de-committed.
Tymir Oliver is a 6-foot-3 defensive end from Philadelphia who committed to Rutgers in August. He had been recruited by Darrell Wilson, a defensive assistant under former head coach Kyle Flood. Rutgers is currently without a head coach so Wilson's status is up in the air and Oliver's might be as well. Other Rutgers recruits have announced their de-commitments. The three-star end was being recruited by Northwestern defensive line coach Marty Long.
Northwestern also had their eye on a couple Virginia Tech prospects -- three-stars Eric Kumah (a wide receiver) and Josh Jackson (a quarterback). While there has been no news on a potential move for either player, recently hired head coach Justin Fuente will need to keep them on board.
The addition of any of these players will bolster a somewhat underwhelming 2016 recruiting class that is currently ranked 48th in the nation and ninth in the Big Ten. There are no true standouts here, with the highest-rated player being cornerback Roderick Campbell Jr., a three-star prospect from St. Louis. All but one of Northwestern's 19 commits are three-stars, with one two-star from Houston.
In a lot of ways this class mimics Northwestern's 2013 class. Most of the players in that class committed following a disappointing 2011 season that saw the Wildcats finish 6-7, and stayed committed during the Wildcats' run to a 10-win 2012 season after the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. But Wildcat defensive back Marcus McShepard was a late edition, committing to Northwestern after the regular season in December 2012. Likewise, all 19 of Northwestern's current '16 commits declared their intentions following Northwestern's second of back-to-back 5-7 season.
Also, aside from four-star quarterback Matt Alviti, no one else in that class was a truly knock-em-dead standout recruit. As a whole, it was ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 52nd in the country. Yet, look up and down Northwestern's depth charts and it is littered with three-stars from that class. Godwin Igwebuike, Tyler Lancaster, Anthony Walker, Keith Watkins, Brad North, Kyle Queiro, McShepard, Matt Harris, Warren Long and Hunter Niswander were all part of that 2013 class. And Northwestern's 2016 group might be shaping up in the same way.