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How recruits choosing defense over offense has helped (and hurt) Northwestern football

Pat Fitzgerald lets his recruits choose offense or defense. It's a good idea, except when they almost all pick defense.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

EVANSTON -- Godwin Igwebuike didn't know what to do.

"It was breaking my heart," he said.

Would the Pickerington, Ohio native who racked up 1,985 rushing yards with 29 touchdowns his senior season ditch the position where he was a finalist for Mr. Football in his home state, an AP first-team All-Ohio selection and named the Columbus Dispatch All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year?

Would the No. 39 "athlete" prospect in the nation opt to play defense over running back?

With former Wildcats Venric Mark, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones already on the roster and Warren Long, a member of Igwebuike's 2013 recruiting class, already slotted in as a running back, Igwebuike had to pick.

Would it be running back or safety?

As late as signing day, Northwestern projected his position to be running back. And it wasn't until a month before he reported to camp that he informed head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive backs coach Jerry Brown and running backs coach Matt MacPherson that he would choose safety.

The decision has paid off for Igwebuike and Northwestern's defense, especially after he played such a prominent role on one of the best defenses in the program's history in 2015.

But it wasn't only Igwebuike that had a tough decision on his hands. A number of standouts on Northwestern's defense either had to choose between offense or defense before coming to Northwestern or were offensive stars during their high school days.

Take safety Kyle Queiro, who figures to start alongside Igwebuike in 2016, for example. Queiro was offered scholarships as both a defensive back and wide receiver pretty much everywhere he looked. "Somebody told me, ‘You're going as a wide receiver, right? Because if you're going Big Ten, I don't know if you can tackle those running backs.' Basically, it was a ‘f--- you.' I'm physical enough and I can do the job," Quiero said about his decision.

Cornerback Matt Harris had his future in mind when the star wide receiver chose to switch to defense full-time at Northwestern, saying that "defensively, you may take less hits than on offense because there's not a target on your back" and that his NFL stock would be higher as a defensive back.

Keith Watkins was the No. 34 running back prospect in the country coming out of high school and like Igwebuike, Northwestern projected him as a running back when he signed his National Letter of Intent in 2013. Now, Watkins will likely start opposite Harris in 2016.

Other players had less of a choice. Marcus McShepard, the athletic former-wide receiver was told by his high school coach that a teammate of his had to accrue more highlight tape as a pass-catching recruit, so he focused fully on defense.

Defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster had never played extended snaps on defensive before coming to Northwestern. The No. 6 center prospect in the nation out of high school only went in on goal-line situations for Plainfield East in Illinois to take up space and cause havoc. But when defensive line coach Marty Long saw Lancaster work out at a camp in Evanston, he noticed his athleticism made him a perfect fit on the defensive line. So, Lancaster made the switch too.

In all, a slew of "either-or" recruits for Northwestern in recent years have opted for defense, a decision made on a primarily independent basis. None of the players said they conferred with other recruits before choosing their positions and they all are adamant that Fitzgerald gives them the final say in what position they play.

"I believe that a guy will be all in if a guy plays a position he wants to play," Fitzgerald said. "It's kind of like when you're home, and you want to do something compared to when you have to do something. That's the attitude. When your folks first told you to go cut the grass, you were like, ‘Awesome. I've always wanted to do this.' But at a certain point it shifted to, ‘Gosh dang it. I've gotta go cut the grass.'"

"It just seems, over time, that we've been able to get kids who play multiple positions," he continued. "I do like kids who play multiple positions because what that means is that when they get to college, there's going to be an upside at a position. They're going to get better at a position. They're going to improve. At the same time, I can't tell you that it wasn't a systemic decision."

Although Fitzgerald prefers not to look too far into it, that non-systematic decision process may, though, have caused some inequities between the talent development on offense and defense. Despite the average 247 Sports composite rating for offensive recruits being higher than that of the defensive recruits (.85 to .84) for the current players on Northwestern's roster, it's clear Northwestern's defense carried the program to 10 wins last season. The Wildcats had the fourth-highest difference between offense and defense S&P+ rank of any team in the country. The offense finished the year ranked No. 111, while the defense finished at No. 5.

Fitzgerald even said as much following Northwestern's 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

"We've got to continue to upgrade our talent on the whole program, so that way we can continue to have competition," he said. "We've got that right now on defense, and I think that's why you saw the defense improve from last year to this year. It was the competition. I really feel strongly and positive about our young talent on offense. We've just got to have a much more competitive offseason."

Fitzgerald has keyed on this idea of competitive depth for a few offseasons now. So it seems, then, that the onus is more on talent development rather than talent acquisition.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and Fitzgerald agree that having the multi-position "athletes" allows for more room for growth once a player picks a side of the ball to focus on. Those same players that have offered that immense potential for Northwestern's defense (Igwebuike, Harris, McShepard, Watkins, Quiero) have left the offensive cupboard somewhat bare for development on the offensive side of the ball, especially when it comes to wide receivers.

In the '12, '13, '14, '15 and '16 Northwestern recruiting classes, an estimated 12 players listed as "athletes" or offensive positions by recruiting services picked to be or were recruited as defenders to Northwestern. Just two, junior superback Garrett Dickerson and freshman-to-be Riley Lees, opted for offense.

Right now, though, that's not Hankwitz's problem. He won't apologize for anything.

"We're glad they chose defense," he says with a chuckle.