Northwestern’s recent success on the football field, culminating in last season’s Big Ten Championship game appearance and Holiday Bowl victory, is certainly something to be celebrated. However, while acknowledging the on-field improvement the Wildcats have undergone, their program-wide upgrade in the minds of NFL talent evaluators is notable as well.
The NFL Draft bears a benchmark for success in college athletics unlike any other. And while the Wildcats will never turn out first rounders like other big-name programs, their recent consistency in both getting players drafted and having unheralded players make a name for themselves bodes extremely well for the future of the program.
In recent years, euphemisms have been assigned to specific teams when pertaining to their success in the draft. Clemson has become “Wide Receiver U”: with players like Deandre Hopkins and Mike Williams performing well at the highest level. Within the Big Ten, the Iowa Hawkeyes have received the self-proclaimed nickname of “Tight End U,” after George Kittle cemented himself as a top tight end in the league and TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant each went in the first round this year.
Northwestern hasn’t stolen any headlines with flashy first-round picks or pro-bowlers. Instead, replicating their identity as a football program, they have steadily improved and gotten more and more players drafted without the accompanying hype and recognition. And if the trend continues, more and more recruits and people around the sport will start to take note.
Within the past decade, the Wildcats have had more quarterbacks selected than any other Big Ten school. Mike Kafka, Trevor Siemian, and Clayton Thorson represent a group of under-appreciated and unnoticed players that earned the honor of having their name called on Draft Day through grit and perseverance.
Justin Jackson further solidified Northwestern’s status as an overlooked source of talent this past season. He was far down on the depth charts at the beginning of the season on a Los Angeles Chargers roster that arguably comprised one of the most talented teams in the NFL. After battling his way to playing time, Jackson finished the season with six straight games of at least six touches, including a week 13 win over Pittsburgh in which he accounted for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Anthony Walker is another example of a Wildcat that has recently excelled at the pro level, playing a crucial role at the middle linebacker position for an Indianapolis Colts team that made it back to the playoffs thanks to a rejuvenated, young, and exciting front seven. Only a fifth-round pick, Walker has quickly become the heart of their impressive defense.
Walker, Jackson, (and hopefully Thorson in years to come) along with others like Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster represent Northwestern not only by succeeding on the biggest stage, but by bucking the odds to do so. Meanwhile, NU has now had a player selected in the draft for its fifth consecutive year. This consistency of performance on draft day and on the professional field may help recruiting more than any shiny new facility can.
A football program doesn’t change overnight; we won’t see Illinois start winning bowl games and impressing on a national stage any time soon. Therefore, incremental progress is important, and what Northwestern has achieved in the past decade, culminating in Thorson being drafted, should be applauded. Three quarterbacks being drafted in ten years is almost unheard of, and with Hunter Johnson’s debut looming, it isn’t crazy to imagine that number four is on the way.
Northwestern has constantly built upon their reputation this century, and the last five drafts has helped elevate this program to heights that previously just weren’t feasible. “Northwestern isn’t a four-year program; it is a 40-year program,” remains Pat Fitzgerald’s most telling selling point. Every subsequent draft pick only serves to make it more relevant.