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Northwestern football recruiting: Reaction to the 2017 class, post-National Signing Day

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It’s Pat Fitzgerald’s second-best class ever.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

With National Signing Day in the rearview, it’s time to take a closer look at the 2017 Northwestern football recruiting class as a whole.

By the Numbers

From a national perspective, it might not look like the most impressive haul. The Wildcats’ class is ranked 48th in the country and 11th in the Big Ten by 247’s Recruiting Composite Team Rankings.

However, there are a couple of things to note about that figure. First, 48th is Northwestern’s second-best ranking ever. Take a look at NU’s finish in that list over the past 10 years.

Second, it’s worth noting that 247’s Team Rankings take into account class size and the ratings of a team’s best recruits, among other factors. Northwestern’s incoming freshman class has 19 scholarship players, near the low end, and just one four-star recruit. When you look at simply the average 247 composite rating of each recruit, Fitzgerald’s class is even more impressive.

That average is 0.8512, which is also the second-best in Northwestern history. When ranking teams by that figure, the Wildcats move up to 37th in the nation and 7th in the Big Ten, sandwiched tightly between Wisconsin (0.8517) and Michigan State (0.8507).

This is how Northwestern’s average recruit rating shapes up for every year since 2001. It is probably true that there is some rating inflation in these figures, but nevertheless it’s an impressive trajectory for the program, both in the long term and over the past couple years.

What makes this class’s average rating so high is its depth. It has just one four-star, Earnest Brown IV (0.9143), but its lowest rated recruit, Andrew Marty, has the highest rating (.8216) of any Northwestern class’s “worst” recruit in the history of 247’s ratings.

Compare that to the famous 2014 class, which had four four-stars, three of whom were rated higher than Brown IV, but had four players with ratings lower than Marty’s. It’s a tribute to Fitzgerald and his staff’s recruiting and the overall growth of the program that they can fill an entire class with guys rated better than 0.82. With two straight winning seasons and a promising 2017 campaign ahead, one has to figure more blue-chip recruits are within reach in the next couple classes.

But back to the class that just signed. It’s impressive from 1 to 19 and fills several areas of need. Here are a couple of takeaways from what looks like a really promising group.

1. Once again, Fitzgerald got almost everyone from outside of the state of Illinois

For the second year in a row, just two recruits in the class played their high school football in the Land of Lincoln: WR Jace James (Carol Stream, IL) and CB Cameron Ruiz (Lake Villa, IL).

This can be looked at in one of two ways. On one hand, it’s not great that Big Ten West rivals Illinois and Iowa are reeling in more of the state’s top-level talent. Of the top 20 recruits in the state (per 247), Illinois picked up four (Nos. 6, 8, 14 and 19) and Iowa signed three (Nos. 1, 16 and 17). Northwestern didn’t get any. Fitzgerald did land No. 21 and No. 25 in James and Ruiz, but it’s the second straight year without grabbing any of the Illinois top 20.

This has been a strange shift in the last couple of years. In 2015, Northwestern signed four of the state’s top 20 recruits. Of course, in 2014, the program made headlines by nabbing Nos. 5, 6 and 7 in the state in Parrker Westphal, Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson. In fact, Fitzgerald got at least one (and generally multiple) of Illinois’ top 20 recruits in each one of his first nine classes as head coach.

The other way to look at it is that Fitzgerald is content in transitioning to a more national recruiting approach, and that’s okay. It’s not as if he is being consistently beat out by other schools for the state’s top prospects; Northwestern offered just two of the 2017 Illinois top 20.

This year’s class is led by five players from Texas (including three of the class’s top five recruits), five players from Ohio and three players from Georgia. That out-of-state success, especially in the south, is quite encouraging. Northwestern going into Texas and landing Brown IV over Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan is somewhat unprecedented.

2. The class has a couple guys who might play right away

The large majority of this class won’t see much time on the field in 2017, if any. Most of them will redshirt, as is the norm under Fitzgerald, and even those that don’t take a redshirt season would figure to have a tough time getting on the field for a team that returns 18 of 22 starters. However, there are definitely several candidates to contribute as true freshmen.

The most talented position group in this class is clearly the defensive line, which Zach Pereles gets into detail with here. The top three recruits in the class (Brown IV, early enrollee Sam Miller and Trevor Kent) all play in the trenches, and all three could potentially play right away following the graduation of Ifeadi Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins. With Anthony Walker Jr. off to the NFL early, inside linebacker Blake Gallagher is another guy who seems like a possible 2017 contributor.

On the other side of the ball, it’s a lot harder to find guys who might not redshirt next year. Superback and early enrollee Trey Pugh seems like the most likely candidate. Maybe an offensive lineman like Rashawn Slater or Ethan Wiederkehr sees time with Eric Olson departed. Several players could find early roles on special teams, and keep an eye out for highly-touted kicking recruit Charlie Kuhbander. He’s got a very real chance to beat out Mason Weisenhoffer and Drew Luckenbaugh in the battle to replace Jack Mitchell next season. And of course, Fitzgerald has a track record of not redshirting at least one wide receiver, so any of the three in this class could emerge.

3. One of the biggest additions of National Signing Day isn’t a member of the 2017 class...and came out of nowhere

After all of the day’s festivities had concluded, Northwestern made a splash by picking up a big-time graduate transfer in former Oregon WR Jalen Brown. Brown, who has two years of eligibility remaining, will come in and immediately help fill the All-American void created by Austin Carr’s departure. In addition to joining Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson and several others atop the depth chart, Brown will bring plenty of experience to the room.

If he were a member of Northwestern’s 2017 class, he would easily be its highest-rated player. Brown was a four-star (0.9471) recruit out of Phoenix in the class of 2014. He never emerged as a star during his time as a Duck, but his talent and athleticism are obvious. It’s a situation reminiscent of when Kyle Prater went to USC as an elite recruit but ended up transferring to Northwestern and having a productive senior year, although the circumstances were different.

Brown’s surprise announcement was the cherry on top of what can only be described as a highly productive National Signing Day for Fitzgerald and Northwestern football.