There were few men happier than Marty Long when Earnest Brown IV’s Letter of Intent came through.
Long, Northwestern’s defensive line coach, lost Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson last offseason and Ifeadi Odenigbo and CJ Robbins in this one. But on National Signing Day, it’s not about who you’ve lost. It’s not even about who you have in Evanston. It’s about who you’re getting.
And Northwestern is getting a whole lot. There’s high three star early enrollee Sam Miller, brother of rising true sophomore Alex. The Millers hail from Houston. There’s four-star crown jewel Earnest Brown IV out of Denton, Texas, just a short trip up Interstate 35 from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And then there’s Trevor Kent, a monstrous athlete who calls Pittsburg, Kansas home.
Pat Fitzgerald stole his three top recruits from the fertile breeding grounds of the Big 12 and the SEC. When it comes to Texas, it’s not just Brown IV and Miller. The Wildcats also brought in offensive lineman Rashawn Slater and safeties Austin Hiller and Bryce Jackson to bring their Lone Star state total to five, more than any class of the Fitzgerald era.
“Our brand is very strong throughout the country, especially in the state of Texas,” Fitzgerald said at his signing day press conference. “You go down to the state of Texas and you beat Texas to a defensive player, that’s big. Our veteran coaches have great relationships with the high school coaches in that area.”
That the Wildcats pulled in three top-priority recruits at a position Fitzgerald admitted he tends to focus on first was both important and impressive.
"The Power 5 conferences are all line of scrimmage leagues,” Fitzgerald said. ”For us to continue to take the steps to be successful on the field, we have to recruit well on the line of scrimmage and I think this group on both sides, offensively and defensively is gonna help add that competitive depth."
It started with Alex Miller, who went from one of the lowest-rated recruits in the 2016 class to one of just a handful to bypass a redshirt year. He played in some sub-packages and will be significantly more involved in 2017. About seven months after he committed, his younger brother, Sam, more highly regarded as a then-four star, followed him to Evanston. Fitzgerald is no stranger to brothers as teammates — the Dickersons and the Queiros come to mind — and establishing an early connection with Alex was key in getting the Wildcats’ second-highest-rated 2017 recruit in purple. Sam Miller shows great spacial awareness, solid tackling and a never-ending motor. He could fulfill a role as either an end or a tackle or both depending on how his body develops and where Northwestern sees him playing at his best.
Kent’s story is a bit different. He’s from a tiny town that was shocked when Jim Harbaugh rolled through trying to get Kent to lean toward the Maize and Blue. Kent remained steadfast in his commitment to Fitzgerald, though, and for that the program should be very, very grateful.
The top recruit in Kansas, Kent stands 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 253 pounds. Donning number 87, he looks like Rob Gronkowski running past defenders in the first clip of his highlight tape (he played tight end for Pittsburg, too). But put that size and explosiveness on the line and you see a Joe Gaziano-esque player who blows up linemen and eats running backs and quarterbacks like they’re grapes. He’s a little raw, and his size won’t be nearly the advantage in college it was in high school, but his burst off the snap is, frankly, a joy to watch. He’s also a little bit like Lowry given his height and his strength, but what really stands out is the quickness; fast-forward to the 1:59 mark of his tape if you want to see it for yourself.
Then there’s Brown IV, who performed so admirably at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the practices preceding it that 247 Sports staffer Barton Simmons simply asked, “How did this guy get away from all the in-state Texas powers?” before calling him a future NFL player. Brown IV shows an impressive set of hands and a diverse skill set. He attacks linemen immediately after the snap and shows great pass-rushing instincts. Brown isn’t the most powerful guy ever, but his speed and quickness are really impressive.
“There’s no question for us to take the next step, we’ve got to continue to solidify that competitive depth on the line of scrimmage,” Fitzgerald said. With his three top recruits playing in the trenches, consider that need filled and then some.
Big Ten quarterbacks and running backs, look out. The future of this defensive line shines bright.