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Northwestern football recruiting: What does the 2018 class still need?

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Pat Fitzgerald is off to a hot start on the recruiting trail, but he would be wise to add talent at several spots.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Take a gander a the 2018 football recruiting rankings, and you’ll find Northwestern in unfamiliar territory — sitting as one of the country’s top 15 classes. Given that Northwestern typically fills out its classes before most schools do, this number will inevitably drop. Still, the class Pat Fitzgerald has assembled thus far has been impressive, especially in the state of Illinois. The Wildcats already have 13 commits, which is tied for fourth-most in the FBS.

The 2018 class is incomplete, though, and it has a few key holes. And although the summer is typically a quieter time for recruiting, here are the positions Fitzgerald should be keen on adding to as he continues to fill out #NUVIEW18.

Defensive tackle

Current players who will be gone in 2018: Tyler Lancaster

2018 projected starters: Jordan Thompson, Alex Miller/Trent Goens

Other players in the mix: Fred Wyatt, Sam Miller

Beyond 2017, defensive tackle is a major question mark for Northwestern. Run-stuffer Tyler Lancaster will be gone, and Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt will only be around for one year after that. Alex Miller and Jake Saunders are young and unproven, and there just isn’t much depth beyond them. Personnel-wise, Fitzgerald may have to bump players like Sam Miller and Trent Goens — who project more as defensive ends — inside for stretches. With the lack of true defensive tackles on the roster, coupled with the fact that the 2018 class doesn’t have a tackle at the moment, going after an interior defensive lineman should be at or near the top of Fitz’s summer wish list.

Four defensive tackles currently hold Northwestern offers, and of those four, Jacob Sykes looks like the most likely option for NU. Jevon Henderson is also a possibility.

With Earnest Brown IV, Trevor Kent and Sam Miller in the fold, and Devin O’Rourke set to come to Evanston in 2018, the defensive line has a promising future on the outsides. If Fitzgerald can bolster the interior of the line in the 2018 class, Northwestern could have one of best defensive lines in the Big Ten for the foreseeable future.

Linebacker

Current players who will be gone in 2018: Brett Walsh, Warren Long

2018 projected starters: Nathan Fox, Paddy Fisher, Nate Hall

Other players in the mix: Jango Glackin, Blake Gallagher, Peter McIntyre, Chee Anyanwu

What will be one of Northwestern’s biggest question marks in 2017 is also a need for the 2018 recruiting class. As it currently stands, Grayson Mann, an inside backer from Forth Worth, TX, is the only linebacker in the class. Of the other six linebackers that Fitzgerald has offered, three have committed elsewhere. Adding an outside linebacker to complement Mann would be wise, and the two targets there are Cameron McGrone and Jacob Mangum-Farrar. On the inside, Khalid Jones II is the only player with an offer. None of those three are projected to choose Northwestern, though, which creates some cause for concern. There is some young depth here after Fitzgerald landed three linebackers in the 2017 class, so getting another linebacker isn’t paramount, but it would be smart. The Wildcats still need to reload at the position after losing three players to medical retirements in the last couple years and three more to graduation in 2017.

Running back

Current players who will be gone in 2018: Justin Jackson

2018 projected starter: John Moten IV

Other players in the mix: Jeremy Larkin, Jesse Brown, Auston Anderson, Kyric McGowan

With Justin Jackson, John Moten IV and Jeremy Larkin in the backfield, Northwestern’s running back room is among the team’s deepest position groups in 2017. Jackson will be gone after the season, however, so Moten will likely assume the starting tailback role for 2018 and 2019, although he could be pushed by the 2016 class’s top-rated recruit, Larkin. Moten looked the part in limited action this season, but it’s no sure thing that he’ll be as durable as Jackson has been the last three seasons. By the time a running back in the 2018 class sees the field, Northwestern will be looking for Clayton Thorson’s replacement, so the running game will be of the utmost importance. Jesse Brown and Kyric McGowan provide depth, but Fitzgerald will want to pick up at least one running back in this class. So far, Northwestern has offered nine, though three of those have committed elsewhere. Recently, the Wildcats lost out on Indianapolis native Tyrone Tracy to Iowa. North Carolina back Jahmir Smith — who took an unofficial visit to Evanston April 1 — should be Fitzgerald’s top priority at the position. Smith holds offers from Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Nebraska, which makes him a tough get for NU, but he would be a big addition to the 2018 class. Houston product Deion Smith could also be a possible commit for Texas’ Big Ten Team, seeing as Northwestern is his only Power-5 offer.