Zooming way out and taking a macro look the Northwestern football program, you could build a pretty sturdy argument that the Pat Fitzgerald era is the golden age of NU football. Seven of the program’s 13 bowl appearances have come under Fitzgerald, including two of just three all-time bowl victories.
That Fitz-era success has come despite never having a recruiting class ranked in the top seven in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports. What that means is that Fitzgerald has done a great job developing and getting the most out of his players. The following list evaluates which players have outperformed their respective recruiting rankings the most.
The now-Cleveland Browns safety fielded interest from both Michigan State and Stanford, but ranked just 852nd nationally in the class of 2010. Coming out of the Philadelphia area, he was actually listed as an athlete by some recruiting services because he played both running back and safety in high school. After redshirting in 2010, Campbell made a strong first impression, leading the team with 100 tackles in his redshirt freshman season. He was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. Campbell was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in his sophomore and junior seasons, and Second Team All-Big Ten in his senior season. He finished his career in the top five in school history in interceptions and pass breakups. Campbell, taken in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, started eight games for the Browns in 2016-2017.
Before he came to Evanston, the 6-foot-3, 230 pound Dean Lowry wasn’t completely unheralded — he had offers from Iowa, Minnesota and Vanderbilt, among others. Still, he was a lower-tier three star recruit, ranked No. 743 in the country in 2012, per 247.
Forgoing a redshirt year, Lowry came in and had an impact as a true freshman, finishing with 14 tackles, three of which were for losses. As Lowry’s career wore on, he continued to bulk up — getting up to 290 pounds in his senior year — and his production increased in turn. In his final three seasons, Lowry had 7, 8 and 13.5 tackles for loss, respectively. He was a menace in the running game, leading a defense that finished the season ranked fifth in the country in S&P+ in 2015. That helped Northwestern to just its third 10-win season in the Big Ten era. Lowry was a consensus Second Team All-Big Ten performer as a senior and went in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers.
Anthony Walker Jr.
Before he was The Franchise, Anthony Walker Jr. was just a Miami high-school kid with just three FBS offers (Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue). After watching how his college career played out, it seems like the big schools in Florida probably regret overlooking that kid.
Walker burst onto the scene in his redshirt freshman season, when he filled in for the injured Collin Ellis and led the team with eight tackles for loss. He continued the momentum from that 2014 season in 2015, finishing fourth in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss. Walker was a consensus First Team All-Big Ten and an AP Third-team All-American pick. He took a step backward in 2016, but still finished as a Second Team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches, before becoming the first Northwestern player in the Fitz era to declare for the NFL draft with eligibility remaining. He’s now a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
This one’s pretty clear. Carr had no Power 5 offers coming out of high school, and had to walk on at Northwestern. For Carr to rise from a walk-on to a Biletnikoff Award Finalist is not only a testament to Carr’s incredible attitude and mindset, but the coaching staff as well. Fitz has said he reserves the right to play the best 11 players on the field at any given moment, and he held true to his word with Carr, even though the Benicia, California native started off without a scholarship. Carr’s 1,247 yards in 2016 were a single-season school record, and his 12 touchdown receptions were tied for the most in program history. His next challenge: earning a job on the defending Super Bowl Champions to catch passes from Tom Brady.
As someone who has been in Evanston for only two seasons, Hartage hasn’t had as much success as the other players on this list. Still, based on how he was rated coming out of high school, he has already easily surpassed expectations. Hartage originally committed to Georgia Southern, which was his only offer at the time. He committed to Northwestern in the February of his senior year of high school after Zach Allen de-committed late in the process. He was the lowest-rated recruit in NU’s 2015 class, and the 2126th ranked recruit in the country, per 247.
After playing all 13 games his true freshman season — though mostly on special teams — Hartage stepped into a starting role as a sophomore when Keith Watkins II went down with a knee injury. Although he experienced some growing pains early in the season, Hartage was Northwestern’s most consistent cornerback in 2016, recording a team-high five interceptions and earning All-Big Ten honorable mention honors from the media. If Hartage, who showed flashes of excellence late in the season, continues to improve as his career goes on, he could be a potential candidate for the NFL at some point. For a former two-star recruit who couldn’t crack the top 200 in the state of Georgia in 2015, that’s pretty remarkable.
Honorable mentions: Matt Harris, Keith Watkins II, Kyle Queiro, Traveon Henry, Venric Mark