Double-digit-win seasons are pretty rare in Evanston. Pat Fitzgerald has been able to produce two of them (2012 and 2015), but the program as a whole has only ever produced four (1903 and 1995).
Wins, in almost all cases, lead to wins on the recruiting trail as well, making a 10-win season ever more important. Recruiting results often trail a year behind on-field results. That was the case in 2012, when high school juniors such as Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson watched Northwestern win 10 games, including an impressive win over Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, nationally televised on ESPN2 on New Year's Day.
The 2012 season carried over to the 2014 class, when those then-juniors were signing their National Letters of Intent. The Wildcats reeled in an impressive class that included four four-star recruits: Thorson, Jackson, Garrett Dickerson and Parrker Westphal, three of whom have seen important playing time in their careers already. The program also added three-star contributors Blake Hance, Solomon Vault, Nate Hall and Xavier Washington as well as Auston Anderson, who chose Northwestern over, among others, Baylor, Stanford, TCU and Texas. The class average composite score of .8577 was the best in the Pat Fitzgerald era, according to 247 Sports.
What should generate so much excitement for the 2017 class though is what Fitzgerald was able to construct on the back of two 5-7 seasons. Despite a two-year postseason absence, Fitzgerald put together his second best class ever.
And that's why 2017 could be so special, too, perhaps setting a new gold standard in recruiting under Fitzgerald. He now has 10 wins to add to his already impressive recruiting pitch. The class already has four commits: linebacker Blake Gallagher, center Sam Gerak, guard Rashawn Slater and defensive lineman Sam Miller (younger brother of 2016 commit Alex). If the early returns are any indication of future success, the Wildcats are in great shape. The class's average rating is .8668.
The Wildcats have also gotten off to a quick start. Northwestern's Class of 2016 didn't get its fourth commitment until late May. It didn't get its first until April. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff have been active and aggressive on the recruiting path early.
Fitzgerald hinted that his team's success in 2015 helped on the recruiting trail with the 2016 class — not necessarily in convincing uncommitted prospects to come to NU, because 19 of the 20 players had already committed prior to the season, but in holding off the advances of other schools who continued to recruit those 19 players.
Northwestern also added its highest-rated recruit, running back Jeremy Larkin, after the season had finished. Larkin may have to wait in line behind Justin Jackson, Warren Long and perhaps others, but the fact that the top offensive player in Ohio de-committed from his hometown University of Cincinnati (which went 7-6 this year) and flipped to Northwestern shows how winning can help in a major fashion.
The full effect of the 10-win season will be felt in the 2017 class though. Fitzgerald and his staff have a long way to go, but if they were able to put together the program's second best class of the decade coming off two five-win seasons, expectations should be sky high for the follow-up act.
The biggest question mark on the roster remains at wide receiver. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Ben Skowronek are two tall, lanky guys to look for on the outside, and the last two classes feature a combined total of seven wideouts, but more help would surely be coveted.
Northwestern has offered scholarships to five class-of-2017 receivers: four-star prospects Osiris St. Brown (!) and Danny Davis, and three-star prospects Cody White, Cameron Sullivan-Brown and Jeremiah Holloman (who has already verbally committed to Michigan).
Getting a guy like St. Brown, who's currently projected to go to Notre Dame, but also holds offers from both Michigan schools, Miami and hometown USC, is a tough task, but one that certainly is made easier by winning 10 games. Remember, Northwestern was able to pull Garrett Dickerson away from both Michigan schools, Ohio State, Florida St. and Alabama, and Westphal away from a collection of schools list, in 2014.
Even if the Wildcats miss out on the Top-100 prospect, they're in good position for a guy like Sullivan-Brown, who has no clear front-runner as of yet and is from the Washington D.C./Baltimore area. The Wildcats pulled 2015 commits Jelani Roberts and Alonzo Mayo from the same area.
Superback is also a position of need. Both Jayme Taylor and Dickerson will be juniors in 2016, and behind them, there is not a lot of quality depth. Tommy Vitale saw limited time as a superback, most notably on this play that sprung Long against Duke, but he's projected as more of a linebacker and special teamer in the future. Also at the position is James Prather, who moved over from the defensive side of the ball, and 2016 commit Eric Eshoo. Hence, Northwestern needs to look for a tight end that can transition to the superback role.
Two class-of-2017 tight ends, Jake Marwede (from Eshoo's alma mater Loyola Academy) and Trey Pugh, have Northwestern high on their lists. Northwestern is high on California-based tight end Jimmy Jaggers, and has already begun the recruiting process with Matt MacPherson, but Jaggers seems to be more intent on several other powerhouses, including Michigan, Oregon and Stanford.
The Wildcats are off to a good start on the offensive line with Slater and Gerak already on board, but will also look to go after some tackles. Currently there are three uncommitted tackles on Northwestern's radar: Walker Little, Blaise Andries and Joel Honigford. Andries and Honigford — both highly-rated three-stars — seem like the most likely candidates, as Little, a Texas product, looks destined for the SEC or Big 12. Andries, from Minnesota, has already accrued five offers — three from the Big Ten, two from the Big 12. Northwestern's biggest competitor seems to be Minnesota. The Wildcats, however, blanked the Gophers 27-0 in 2015, and should have an advantage over a program that just endured a midseason coaching change. Evanston also seems like a possible landing spot for Honigford, an Ohio native. Northwestern has established a pretty strong pipeline in Ohio, and Honigford is yet to receive an offer from his top choices (Ohio St., Michigan St. and West Virginia).
A longer-range need is at quarterback. Fitzgerald says he tries to recruit a quarterback in every class, but missed out on all his top targets in the 2015 class. While Clayton Thorson is certainly the starter for next year and — provided he shows improvement — for the rest of his career as a Wildcat, Northwestern currently has just four scholarship quarterbacks. Matt Alviti is a class ahead of Thorson, and Lloyd Yates may not be a Big Ten caliber QB. If Northwestern can't hit on a QB in the 2017 class, hopes will be pinned almost solely on incoming freshman Aidan Smith once Thorson graduates.
Northwestern has offered five scholarships to quarterbacks, two of which have already given their verbal commitment elsewhere. Davis Mills, Jack Coan and Kasim Hill are the three uncommitted targets. Hill seems like the most likely of the bunch to become a Wildcat. He's former teammates with Roberts and Mayo at the Gilman School in Baltimore. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall is already on the recruiting prowl for Coan, though he holds a bevy of impressive offers from the Big Ten as well as the ACC. Mills, meanwhile, has an offer list that could fill a phone book and might be difficult to pry away from Stanford, Michigan or UCLA, his apparent top three choices.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball, there's plenty of youth and depth, but outside linebacker Pete Werner looks to be of top priority for Northwestern. 247's Crystal Ball has the four-star Werner heading to Northwestern. The stiffest competition appears to be Wisconsin.
There aren't many "needs" necessarily on defense, but stockpiling in the trenches is what Fitzgerald likes to do best. Miller, who is already committed, could end up being an end or a tackle. Northwestern is looking at defensive ends Drew Jordan and Kam Jones (both from Suwanee, GA) as well as tackle Dalyn Wade-Pope, who has offers from Stanford, Alabama, Ohio St. and Notre Dame, among others.
Perhaps the biggest need is at safety. With Traveon Henry gone, it will likely be Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro as the last line of defense this coming season, but behind those two, there's depth in numbers, but not necessarily in quality.
Jaylen Kelly-Powell is the highest-rated safety Northwestern has offered, but Kyle Nunn and Scott Nelson, who's high on both Northwestern and Michigan, seem like more likely options. Overall, though, Northwestern must hit on a safety that can come in and contribute as an underclassman.
Finally, an overlooked part of recruiting that Northwestern has had some trouble with is kicker/punter. Jack Mitchell is a rising senior and Hunter Niswander a rising junior, and there are no scholarship specialists behind either. Northwestern hasn't had a four-year scholarship kicker since Jeff Budzien, who turned out to be an All-American. Mitchell has had his game-winners, but also his share of struggles, and never has really been pushed for the job. Preferred walk-on Mason Weissenhoffer has a canon for a leg, but Northwestern ought to pursue a kicker and/or punter for 2017. Northwestern's punting over the last few years has been unsightly.
Overall, the Wildcats appear to have a lot of talented youth moving forward and are on the radar for a lot of current juniors. While it's still very early in the process, it's never too early to start attracting talent to Evanston, and Fitzgerald's already on the fast track to doing so. Look for 2017 to be his best class ever.