After Northwestern officially named Clayton Thorson its starting quarterback on Thursday, the case can be made without exaggeration that the Wildcats have as much or more raw talent in their backfield as any other team in the Big Ten West.
That might sound absurd for a program coming off its second straight losing season, but consider this: Northwestern and Nebraska are the only two Big Ten West programs to have former four-star recruits starting at both quarterback and running back. While Thorson is still an unknown — though he did beat out another former four-star and a senior for the job — running back Justin Jackson is well on his way to becoming an All-Big Ten contender.
And that's not all. Behind Jackson is Auston Anderson, who was a high three-star recruit but had the best group of offers of the lot. This is, without a doubt, the most raw talent Northwestern has ever accumulated in its backfield. Say what you want about recruiting rankings (numbers say you're probably wrong, FYI), that's impressive. And perhaps it's even more impressive when you look at who else wanted one or all three of the three players:
Texas, TCU, Stanford, Penn State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Iowa, UCLA, Arizona State, Baylor, Cal, Arizona, Missouri, Mississippi State and many more.
Northwestern now has players that the best teams in college football wanted, but couldn't get. Four years ago, that wasn't the case. Now it is, and it certainly means something.
The four-star backfield will rightfully be the focus, but it's not all Northwestern has to be excited about. Among the classes of 2013 and 2014, Garrett Dickerson, Xavier Washington, Anthony Walker, Brad North, Godwin Igwebuike, Keith Watkins and Matt Harris are all going to make major impacts this season. Blake Hance and Tommy Doles, as redshirt freshmen, are nearly ready to take over both tackle spots. Those players had collective offers from Stanford, Michigan, Alabama, Miami, Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan State, Wisconsin and many more.
I could keep name-dropping, but you get the point: These are players really good teams wanted.
Northwestern loves its cliches and mottos, so now that NU basketball has gotten its #NUEra, the official announcement that Thorson will be starting for the Wildcats marks a new era in Northwestern football history. Sure, sometimes you miss on recruits, but now, with a four-star quarterback beating out another four-star and a senior to start as a freshman — a program first since 2002 — NU finally has the depth of highly-touted recruits to have its pick on a crowded depth chart.
Can you imagine that? Northwestern — NORTHWESTERN — gets to have its pick of four-star quarterbacks, rather than just hope a once-in-a-generation recruit pans out.
The Wildcats should have been better over the past two years. That's a failure of the players and the coaching staff. But those hyped-up recruits you got excited about in the wake of the 2012 season and in the build-up to the 2013 Ohio State game? They're here and they're ready to contribute. By and large, they weren't in the past two seasons.
This is the arc many programs take after a couple years of stellar recruiting. Ole Miss recruited a monster class in 2012 and turned its program around last season. Tennessee is hoping to have a similar jump after sustained top recruiting under Butch Jones. Northwestern doesn't have recruits of that caliber, but it doesn't have to — the Wildcats play in the Big Ten West, and they're no longer at a talent disadvantage compared to their division foes.
NU doesn't need to win big right away. There will be bumps along the way with such a young roster. But this is the opening to the Wildcats' window for big-time success. They'll have Clayton Thorson and Auston Anderson for four years, and Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike, Anthony Walker, Brad North and Garrett Dickerson for three. They'll have two highly-touted understudies at tackle for four years of development, too.
If Northwestern is to win a Big Ten West title in the Pat Fitzgerald era, that title will come in the next three to four years. The stars are aligned, or more accurately, the stars are now ready to compete in Evanston. The rewards might not be evident right away, but the future is finally here for Northwestern football.