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2015 starts Northwestern football's golden era of recruits

With all the talent on the roster, the Wildcats have to win now.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

By the start of this season, Northwestern will be three years removed from the last time it went to a bowl game. For all the hype this program had post-2012 — back when Pat Fitzgerald was going to be the next coach of Texas, Michigan and everyone else — it's fairly incredible how fast this program has fallen.

Whatever your thoughts on the state of the program and the ability of the coaching staff to turn things around, it's clear that we are now in the age of reckoning for Fitzgerald. Things can't stay the same if there's more losing like there was in the past two years, and that's especially true given personnel.

For all the talk about improved recruiting — and yes, the recruiting has improved — the returns haven't quite come on the field. The defense has shown some improvement, but the offense was stagnant, despite having a number of exciting, young players on the roster. This regression despite improved recruiting has caused some to speculate that Fitzgerald has missed out on capitalizing on NU's best era of recruits. But that's not quite true.

Other than the receivers, who have certainly underachieved, no position group had experienced talent starting. Trevor Siemian was not part of Fitzgerald's highly-regarded recruiting classes, while the offensive linemen in those classes were still young. The best player on NU's offense last year? Justin Jackson, who lived up to his recruiting hype and more.

But with the seniors from the classes of 2010 and 2011 graduating, we're about to see NU's golden recruiting classes get their moment. And that's when Fitzgerald has to win.

For the next three years, the Wildcats could very well have a three-player backfield that's more talented than the backfields of three-quarters of the rest of the conference. With Clayton Thorson or Matt Alviti at quarterback, and with Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson potentially sharing carries, there is a lot of talent and a lot of versatility for NU to be successful. These aren't the Wildcats of old, who had to overachieve with low three-star recruits. This is a four-star backfield that should be better than a lot of the defenses it faces.

Player Position Year Stars Composite Rating Position Ranking Notable Offers
Clayton Thorson Quarterback Redshirt Freshman 4 0.9218 9 (PRO) Iowa, Ole Miss, Penn State
Matt Alviti Quarterback Sophomore 4 0.9114 9 (Dual-Threat) Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame
Justin Jackson Running Back Sophomore 4 0.9284 4 (APB) Arizona State, Mississippi State, Missouri
Auston Anderson Running Back Redshirt Freshman 3 0.8681 33 (RB) Baylor, Stanford, Texas, UCLA

Sometimes there are busts in recruiting, but simply put, an offense with that backfield cannot miss out on a bowl game. That's especially considering how versatile these players are. Thorson is a great passer, but he's also very mobile. Jackson has incredible vision, while Anderson is a speedster. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has plenty of options with this group, from the Oregon-perfected triple read option to the Auburn pop pass. There is no excuse for this group to not perform.

And beyond 2015, this team should improve every year to be, at minimum, a mid-tier Big Ten team. If NU really does develop players as well as Fitzgerald claims, then it should be better. Because beyond that backfield, there are even more good players eligible starting this season.

Player Position Year Stars Composite Rating Position Ranking Notable Offers
Ifeadi Odenigbo Defensive End Junior 4 0.968 4 (OLB) Notre Dame, Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan
Parrker Westphal Cornerback Redshirt Freshman 4 0.9397 13 Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida
Garrett Dickerson Superback Sophomore 4 0.9122 10 (WDE) Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford
Godwin Igwebuike Safety Sophomore 3 0.8788 18 (ATH) Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin
Adam DePietro Offensive Line Junior 3 0.8634 36 (OG) Michigan State, Pitt, West Virginia
Greg Kuhar Defensive Tackle Junior 3 0.859 54 (DT) Iowa, Michigan, West Virginia
Blake Hance Offensive Tackle Redshirt Freshman 3 0.8538 32 (TE) Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska
Tommy Doles Offensive Tackle Redshirt Freshman 3 0.8532 64 (OT) Michigan
Anthony Walker Linebacker Sophomore 3 0.8519 52 (OLB) Miami, Minnesota
Keith Watkins Cornerback Sophomore 3 0.8513 21 (APB) Arizona State, Iowa, Kentucky
Solomon Vault Wide Receiver Sophomore 3 0.8394 30 (APB) Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee

There are more, but the point is clear: This group of players is talented, and they're no longer redshirting. This team should not be 5-7.

Nobody is expecting NU to be a West Division contender immediately with so many young players. But with this much talent and with a weak division, the Wildcats absolutely have to get back to the postseason in order to save many of their assistant coaches' jobs. In 2016 and 2017, the expectations will only get higher.

This is Pat Fitzgerald's window to permanently elevate Northwestern football. The Gator Bowl was nice and 2013 and 2014 were clearly missed opportunities to gain some momentum heading into the Wildcats' golden age. But this is the most talented roster NU has ever had, and the same will be true of the next few years.

Now, the Wildcats have to win. And that starts Wednesday with spring practice.