My Twitter feed was filled with Northwestern football news; my phone was blowing up with exclamatory four-letter texts. First it was four-star defensive end Earnest Brown IV who announced his commitment to Northwestern on Tuesday night, then it was three-star tight end/defensive end Trevor Kent who announced Wednesday afternoon.
Okay, so maybe it didn't unfold that dramatically, but it's difficult to overstate just how important the respective commitments of Brown and Kent are to Northwestern football. These two highly-touted defensive linemen chose Northwestern over a slew of other Power Five schools. Both held offers from Oklahoma and Michigan. These commitments show growth; they show the effect of a 10-win season; they show what state of the art athletic facilities can attract; they show Pat Fitzgerald's ability to recruit against powerhouse schools; and perhaps most importantly, they cement the defensive line for the next six years.
These are, of course, just two student-athletes finishing up their junior years of high school. But it's not just about the two players themselves; it's about what they represent. Northwestern is a program that has never been known for its recruiting prowess. To put this class of 2017 into perspective, as of today, March 24, Northwestern's class ranks No. 16 (4th in the Big Ten) in 247's Class Rankings. That's ahead of USC, Texas, LSU, Florida, Oregon, Ole Miss, and a host of other blue-chip recruiting schools.
Sure, Northwestern is ranked ahead of many other schools based solely on having more commitments, and yes, the recruiting for 2017 has just commenced, but it's just begun for Northwestern as well. This class is well on its way to being Fitzgerald's best ever. To have six commitments before the end of March is unprecedented for Northwestern — it's something only 15 schools have done this year and something Fitzgerald has never done.
Linebacker Blake Gallagher started the early movement when he committed on Dec. 14, and center Sam Gerak shortly followed on Dec. 21. Defensive lineman Sam Miller and offensive lineman Rashawn Slater committed in late January, and of course Brown and Kent went back-to-back on March 22 and 23.
It's imperative to get an early start on recruiting, primarily because it means that Fitzgerald is getting the players he wants. He's offering players early and they're committing. Many top prospects commit between now and the summer because they have their pick of the top schools. Suddenly, Northwestern is in that conversation of top schools.
This shows potential recruits that Northwestern is building a special class, and gives the early commits ample time to try to pitch Evanston to their peers. At the very least, recruits are going to start to wonder why Northwestern received commitments over Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas A&M, Penn State, Baylor, TCU, and Ole Miss. The answer is that Fitzgerald finally has the on-field results to supplement his already strong recruiting pitches — his "football family," his care for his players, Northwestern's academics, staff continuity, and more.
It's all those pitches that allowed him to land a player like Brown. Although he can line up inside in high school, Brown looks like a pure edge rusher. His tape is a must-watch, and keep in mind that he's doing this against North Texas competition. His .8936 247 composite rating ranks him among the top 10 commits in Northwestern history.
What might be most encouraging is his size. Brown is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, and he will certainly bulk up by the time his first season at Northwestern comes around. His size is that of an every-down pass rusher that can dominate against both the pass and the run. Think Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun as the potential ceiling Brown (or former Wildcat Corey Wootton if you want a more familiar comparison). Here's this video from camp, just for fun:
Earnest Brown says if I can't go around you I'll run you over instead https://t.co/BXWyTj3PU6— Taylor Hamm (@TaylorHamm247) March 13, 2016
As for Kent, what stands out on his tape is his athleticism. His 0.8793 247 composite rating makes him a top-10 recruit during Fitzgerald's tenure. He starts at tight end and defensive end, although Northwestern recruited him for defense. His tape evokes memories of former Wildcat and NFL-bound defensive end Dean Lowry. He's already 6-foot-5, 253 pounds, with a high motor and a 4.85-second 40-yard dash. It's easy to see why he's ranked as the No. 1 recruit in Kansas. The guy has a nose for the football and punishes the quarterback when he gets to him.
We know that the Northwestern defense is deep. The commitments highlight just how bright the future is for the defensive line though.
It starts with sophomore-to-be Jordan Thompson, who is an absolute beast. Having seen what he can do in a limited role, Thompson should excel with more playing time. He's a complete defensive tackle that commands attention in the middle and can blow-up plays by himself.
Defensive end is a little thin headed into next season, but redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens have shown promise. These two got a year to learn the system, watch Dean Lowry, and will hopefully be three- or four-year contributors. Both were dominant pass rushers in high school and with a little more size, they should be able to play a big role for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
The 2016 recruiting class brings defensive line depth as well. Defensive end Tommy Carnifax is another tall, lean, athletic defensive end that has starter potential, and defensive tackle Jake Saunders is a really nice defensive tackle prospect that will anchor the line alongside Thompson in future years.
Fresh off a 10-win season and the approval of a beautiful, new lakeside athletic complex, Northwestern is starting to reap the rewards. For Northwestern fans, this is fun. It's fun to look at the current recruiting class rankings. It's fun to think about what the future holds for Northwestern football.