Northwestern football has come a long way under Pat Fitzgerald. Excluding the early 20th century, no coach has experienced more consistent on-field success with the Wildcats than Fitz has. A big part of that success, naturally, has been a boost in recruiting.
Last week, we took a look at five players who came in as unheralded (or at least not highly-touted) recruits and developed into strong contributors under Fitz’s tutelage. For the most part, those are the types of players Fitzgerald’s teams have been built upon. However, he has landed plenty of recruits who garnered a little more attention coming out of high school, too. And for every Justin Jackson or Vincent Browne that lived up to their hype, there have been many who haven’t. Here are the five players who have underwhelmed the most, relative to their recruiting pedigree, in the Fitz era.
Note: to be included (even as an honorable mention), a player must be one of the top 40 recruits in program history, per 247 Sports.
I know, this one is hardly fair. But let me make it very clear: the purpose of this article isn’t to disparage anyone’s desire or talent level. Often times, big-time recruits fail to make major contributions for reasons outside of their control. That’s the case with Westphal, who has been through it all at Northwestern and whose story is one of frustration and disappointment. The top-rated recruit in the record-setting 2014 class, ranked just above fellow four-stars Jackson, Clayton Thorson and Garrett Dickerson, Westphal came to Evanston as a much-hyped defensive back prospect. It’s not often a guy chooses Northwestern over Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame and four SEC offers. He enrolled early. Then, the injuries hit. Since his arrival on campus over three years ago, Westphal has yet to make it through a full healthy offseason. When he’s been able to see the field, he hasn’t found a rhythm, recording just five career tackles in 14 games. Yet, despite the feeling that he’s been around forever, Westphal still has two years of eligibility left. Northwestern fans would love nothing more than to see him finally get healthy and find a way off of this list.
Custis came to Northwestern as the jewel of the 2009 recruiting class. He was a high three-star recruit ranked among the top 25 defensive ends in the country by Rivals.com, and chose the Wildcats over Stanford and Boston College. Surely, the athletic stud out of Ohio would anchor Northwestern’s pass rush for the next four years, right? That never came close to materializing. Custis, despite no reported injury problems, appeared in just four games during his entire college career. He had two tackles. There’s a reason why Bleacher Report and BTN pegged him as Northwestern’s biggest recent flop back in 2014. I won’t speculate as to what caused his failures, but Custis certainly won’t be remembered in the same vein as fellow 2009 signees Damien Proby, Jeff Budzien and Anthony Battle (okay, maybe that last one is slightly unique).
Just the second four-star recruit of the Fitz era, Alviti likely came to Northwestern envisioning a long career as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. He was a top-10 dual threat QB per 247 Sports, and Scout ranked him in the top 25 among all quarterbacks in the class of 2013. However, Alviti never was able to consistently earn consistent playing time, much less a starting role, and barring a catastrophic injury will graduate as a career backup. After redshirting his freshman year, he spent 2014 watching future NFL starter Trevor Siemian run the show in his senior year. Alviti was used sparingly in option looks, finishing with one net yard rushing. He scored a touchdown in the upset win over Notre Dame, though! Alviti, who likely expected to take over for Siemian upon his graduation, was dealt a tough blow when the four-star QB who had signed one year after him and redshirted the 2014 season, Clayton Thorson, came out and won the starting job in 2015. Alviti has seen very little of the field in Thorson’s first two years as a starter and the weird option packages featuring him have never been very productive. 2017 will almost certainly be more of the same. I do have to give Alviti a lot of credit for sticking it out and not transferring somewhere else.
Much like Westphal, Anderson still has two years left to potentially change his narrative. And much like Westphal, Anderson has been hampered by injuries that have limited his chances to show off and utilize his natural talent and athleticism. Alas, much like Westphal, Anderson has hardly contributed during his time at Northwestern — and that doesn’t seem too likely to change. While he didn’t have the four-star pedigree of Westphal, Anderson warranted a good amount of intrigue after dominating at Texas powerhouse Plano West and choosing the Wildcats over programs like UCLA, Cal, Baylor and Texas. He redshirted in 2014 and showed some of his promise by rushing 8 times for 56 yards in garbage time against Eastern Illinois in 2015. However, with Jackson and Warren Long dominating carries, Anderson found just five more during the remainder of the season. In 2016, he again dealt with injuries. By all accounts, Anderson is a hard worker who is incredibly fun to be around. Let’s hope he can stay healthy over the next two seasons and that the former track star can finally become a part of the offense, especially after Jackson graduates. For now, though, it’s been a disappointing career for the Texas product.
Thanks to Ifeadi Odenigbo, the highest-rated recruit in program history, Jones wasn’t the primary story of the 2012 recruiting class. Still, as a highly-touted in-state running back from Joliet, IL, Jones came to Northwestern facing lofty expectations. He was, after all, a top-25 RB nationally according to 247 Sports, and had offers from Iowa, Notre Dame and Louisville, among others. He redshirted his first year on campus, then enjoyed a whopping one catch and three carries before being suspended for a violation of team rules in November 2013. He wouldn’t come back for his sophomore season. Jones was granted his release to transfer, meaning one of the 20 best recruits in program history turned in just one highly unproductive year at Northwestern. He ended up at Louisville after all, and following another year of sitting out and another year of doing nothing, at least got 15 carries for 66 yards as a senior in 2016.
Honorable mentions: Ifeadi Odenigbo (monster senior season helped best NU recruit ever escape this list), Adam DePietro, Greg Kuhar, Evan Watkins