Parrker Westphal is one of the few Northwestern students who is grade-confused.
In football terms, he's a redshirt freshman. He lives with Deonte Gibson, a senior, and C.J. Robbins, who is entering his sixth year in Evanston. Academically, he "thinks" he's a junior. But current juniors enrolled in the fall of 2013, when Westphal was still just a high school senior.
"I have no idea what grade I'm in," he says before taking a deep, reflective sigh. Westphal's eyes betray a sense of annoyance, if not frustration, with the way the last few years have played out.
"Man, I feel like I've been here forever."
★ ★ ★
It's difficult to conceive how grown men can rank one high school football player higher than another. Logic would state that there's too much variation, and too many unknowns. It's nearly impossible to project how a particular player's skills will translate to the college level. Will a running back be able to shake linebackers like that in college? How about the quarterback, will he be able to move through his progressions quickly enough? That defensive end has terrific burst, but will it be enough at the next level?
Pat Fitzgerald has said multiple times that he doesn't believe in these rankings.That's why you won't see him bemoan a lack of four-star recruits. To be fair, recruiting goes far deeper than just signing a few highly-rated players. In a conference as brutally physical as the Big Ten, depth is paramount, and the class of 2016 is a seminal case of how a class can be impressive without any four-stars.
The class of 2015 didn't have any four-stars, either. But the class of 2014 had four.
You're familiar with three of them. Clayton Thorson started all 13 games at quarterback in a 10-win season. Justin Jackson has carried the ball 557 times for 2,605 yards in two workhorse seasons. The only reason Garrett Dickerson didn't get much time at superback is because this beast was hogging all the playing time. Dickerson is, however, Dan Vitale's heir apparent, and could shine in 2016.
And then there's Westphal, who was rated higher than all three.
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Parrker Westphal's stellar play in the secondary at Bollingbrook High (IL.) caught the attention of virtually every power school in the midwest. Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Wisconsin all came knocking. In a move that surprised many "insiders," Westphal committed to Northwestern on Dec. 20, and was sure enough in his choice that he graduated high school that same December and enrolled at NU in January. Westphal was the first player in the Fitzgerald-era to do so.
He had watched in admiration as his high school teammate Antonio Morrison did the same at Florida, and felt he too was ready to make the early jump.
"I talked to my brother about it," says Westphal. His brother comes up seemingly every minute in conversation. It's clear he still plays a huge role in Westphal's life. "I just wanted to get the distractions out of the way. I saw a lot of opportunity. I just took it."
As far as early-enrollees go, Morrison's route has been somewhat conventional. He used the spring to beef up his time management skills, adjust to dorm life and get his mind ready to compete for playing time when fall came. No redshirt was necessary — that is, after all, why most players enroll early, to avoid a redshirt — and Morrison suited up as a true freshman in Florida's first game of the 2012 season. In the SEC opener that year against Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M, Morrison had 6 tackles. He stayed mostly healthy and contributed steadily for the Gators until an East Carolina lineman barreled into his knee during his junior season.
Morrison's health held up for two-plus seasons. Westphal has been less lucky.
Way less lucky.
"It's just a lot of nagging stuff."
An injury forced Westphal to redshirt during his freshman year. The thought was that he'd use a full season to get his body right and be ready to go by spring ball. But it wasn't to be. His body simply had other plans. Westphal chooses not to discuss his specific injuries, but he more or less hasn't made it through an entire offseason phase unscathed since he arrived in Evanston two years ago.
Things weren't going as planned, and adding to the frustration was Westphal's inability to live up to his own internal expectations.
"I put the pressure on myself," he says. "The coaches said just let it loose, play fast. But I think I put a lot of the pressure on myself. And I didn't need to."
Westphal's official stats for the 2015 season are non-existent. According to his Northwestern profile, he appeared in four games on special teams and was named Defensive Practice Player of the Week before the Eastern Illinois game. That's not exactly what you'd expect from a player ranked 10th among all cornerbacks coming out of high school.
But in football and in life, things don't always go as planned. Once Westphal stepped on campus, his four-star rating became irrelevant. A player isn't by any stretch handed a position perched atop a depth chart because websites said he's better than someone else. Westphal was just another player vying for playing time, and his injuries have obscured the immense talent that wowed college coaches and recruiting experts.
★ ★ ★
It's the first day of spring practice. Westphal stands in a hallway adjacent to Northwestern's indoor practice facility. He's been through a lot over the past two years, but his ponytail (he has a strong claim to having the best hair on the team) and his wispy mustache-type facial hair remain. So do his unassuming nature and relentless optimism.
"I've never let something get me down... I've never really had an opportunity to feel bad for myself," he says.
This day feels like the first day of school for most, but it takes on a special significance for Westphal. It's the beginning of a new, hopefully healthy, chapter. On the field, Westphal has officially moved from cornerback to safety. It's not an entirely unexpected move — Matthew Harris will start at cornerback and Keith Watkins II is the favorite to play opposite him. The roster has terrific depth at the corner position. Plus, Westphal played some safety in high school and is excited get to show his more physical side. What better way to turn the page on a frustrating couple of years than to get a fresh start at an entirely new position that calls for physical catharsis?
"He's as healthy as he's been," says defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "He really hasn't been able to practice for extended periods of time. Now that he's healthy, he's got a chance to get out there."
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Hankwitz and Fitzgerald are rooting hard for Westphal. Everybody is. Fitzgerald isn't one to divulge too much information about his football team's schematic plans. He's even more mum when asked about other programs or players. When he does open up is when he's speaking about his own players and the people they are off the football field. He gets some heat for his in-game decisions, but no one can doubt Fitzgerald's genuine, almost paternal care for his "young men." He knows the player he recruited hasn't shown himself in Evanston, and that's been hard for him both as a coach and a mentor.
"We're just trying to help him," Fitzgerald says of Westphal. "He's had such a hard road with the injury issues, so just getting him any taste of success will be fun."
Whether that road will continue is anyone's guess. Nobody knows if Westphal is injury prone, or if he's simply been unlucky and has finally turned a corner. There's a sense of relief, however, at the fact that he hasn't burned through those precious years of eligibility. The opportunity to become what he and others expected him to be two years ago is still within reach.
"Just knowing that I have three years ahead of me, that's a blessing," Westphal says. "I have everything out of the way, I feel great... I'm just glad I've held my head high."
Parrker Westphal might feel like he's been at Northwestern forever. But, if all finally goes to plan, Westphal's football journey is just beginning.