After Northwestern flipped offensive lineman Zachary Franks from Penn State two weeks ago, the Wildcats found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
In the recruiting rankings, that is.
After Rivals updated its stats for the 2019 recruiting class, Northwestern ranked No. 43 in the nation, the highest the school has been since Rivals began its list in 2002. The mid-season rankings leave Northwestern sitting significantly higher than they finished with the class of 2018 (No. 60).
It’s important to note that Northwestern fills its recruiting class earlier than most other schools, thus the ranking could be overstating the strength of NU’s class. Still, since the rankings began in 2002, Northwestern typically found itself in the low 50’s and 60’s, some years even as low as the 80’s nationwide. The only other year it was able to break the 40’s was in 2016, when the Wildcats reeled in the 46th best class in the country. In that year, they signed 20 commits highlighted by four-star Roderick Campbell and three-stars Jeremy Larkin and Aidan Smith.
This year’s recruiting class appears to be on par with 2016’s — Northwestern has now compiled 16 recruits when you include former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson.
The 2019 recruiting season has had its ups and downs for the Wildcats. After QB Cale Millen decommitted in late April and all other NU QB prospects committed elsewhere, it seemed like a dead end until Johnson transferred from Clemson and filled the exact spot needed.
NU also suffered a series of blows early on in the summer with top prospects committing elsewhere. Four-star RB Jirehl Brock committed to Iowa State after having Northwestern in his top three, leaving NU with no RBs in the class of 2019. Three-star safety Brandon Joseph, who had also narrowed his list to three, committed to Texas Tech, resulting in another loss.
Flipping Franks from Penn State gives NU some momentum, however. The Wildcats will look to snag two or three more commitments throughout the fall.
Strong Three-Star Backbone
In recent years, NU recruiting classes have consisted of majority two- and three-star recruits. When Rivals began the rankings in 2002, Northwestern ranked No. 64 in the nation, signing 22 players, 14 of whom were two-stars. As the football program has improved, Northwestern has begun to stray away from two-stars, offering most scholarships to three and four-stars, with a few five stars as well.
Excluding five-star Hunter Johnson, the class of 2019 is made up of 15 three-star recruits. With almost every major position covered except running back, Pat Fitzgerald and his staff continue to target mid-level prospects in hopes of developing them into contributors.
The results have been positive recently. The class of 2016, one of the best recruiting classes in the past decade for NU, was stocked-full of influential three-stars such as Jeremy Larkin, Paddy Fisher and Ben Skowronek, all players whom NU needs to excel this coming season.
Making Elite Lists for Top Recruits Shows Bright Future
Competing in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten can often leave a school like NU off the lists of many top recruits, as they are more intrigued by big name programs like Wisconsin or Penn State. With talent improving in the conference and the league, keeping up can be hard, so the fact that Northwestern has become a top choice for many elite players shows a bright future for the program.
Specifically, 2020 lineman Myles Hinton, son of Northwestern legend Chris Hinton, is currently the highest-ranked OT in his class and the fifth-best prospect in the nation. The five-star recruit listed NU as one of his top five along with Michigan, Georgia, Clemson and Stanford. While the other four schools may be hard to beat out, the fact that players with as much potential as Hinton are considering NU means more like him will follow. This story may not be as influential to the current recruiting class, but it bodes well for the future. If NU can continually finish in ESPN’s top 20 rankings like last season, top players like Hinton will continue to keep the Wildcats in contention for their top choice.
In addition to Hinton, NU has targeted two other highly-regarded recruits for the class of 2020. Four-stars A.J. Henning and Rylie Mills currently hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in Illinois and both rank in the Rivals top 250. While both players have received numerous offers from top football programs in the nation, having the in-state connection could potentially push them towards NU. While they have both showed most interest in Notre Dame, neither player has even begun official visits yet, and it is still too early to call. Signing either Henning or Mills would be a steal for Fitzgerald and his staff, and would hopefully allow NU to be considered by more top recruits in the future.
The newly-minted Walter Athletics Center should only help in that regard. According to Northwestern Director of Player Personnel Chris Bowers, a mother of a 2019 commit mentioned the facility in the immediate aftermath of her son’s commitment — the first time he could ever remember a player or his family member mentioning the facilities as part of the reason for a commitment.
Northwestern no longer has the glaring facilities disadvantage that has dogged the program’s recruiting for years. While it remains to be seen if Pat Fitzgerald and his staff will be able to grab blue-chip recruits moving forward, NU is en route to one of its best recruiting classes in years.