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The face behind the recruiting wave: How Kurt Anderson is changing the “trench” culture of Northwestern

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Despite replacing a coach with a decade of experience in Evanston, Anderson has impressed right off the bat.

NUsports.com

Kurt Anderson has yet to coach a game while in charge of Northwestern’s offensive line, but he is already making his presence felt. Since he was officially named to the role in January, the results have been tangible.

Northwestern has added three offensive linemen recruits to its 2020 class since Anderson took command of the trenches, but these haven’t been just any commits.

Peter Skoronski, who committed Saturday, marks the top offensive line recruit in Northwestern history and the fifth highest-rated recruit of the Pat Fitzgerald. The four-star prospect chose Northwestern over Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State and Stanford.

Josh Priebe, a three-star who also committed this past week, chose the ‘Cats over Ohio State, among others. According to Pat Fitzgerald, who said back in November that he had never beaten out the Buckeyes for a recruit, that marked another first.

Ben Wrather, another three-star who committed back in April, rounds out the trio. He turned down many Power 5 programs, namely Penn State, to join the “Trench Cats,” as Anderson has begun to refer to his new commits on Twitter.

The former two recruits mark two of the three highest-rated linemen Anderson has ever brought in, despite a two-year stint with Arkansas immediately prior to his time at Northwestern. He has certainly appeared to have taken his recruiting to the next level for his new team.

We could argue all we want about the practicality and worth of evaluating Northwestern recruits and their legitimacy based off either their ratings or the schools they turn down, but trends like these simply can’t be ignored. Ten, and maybe even five years ago, the thought of Northwestern beating out the likes of Notre Dame and Michigan for a prized four-star Illinois native lineman like Skoronski would’ve been unheard of.

The fourth best player in Illinois and tenth best offensive guard in the country choosing Northwestern over perennial midwest power programs seems to mean that Anderson and the Wildcats must be doing something right. Sure, we won’t know these players’ actual on-the-field impact and abilities until they suit up in the fall of 2020, but they’re a measurable sign of Northwestern’s progress and rise in legitimacy as a program.

“You don’t have to go to a traditional powerhouse school,” Wrather told Inside NU. “We’re making Northwestern into one of those powerhouse schools.”

Much of Northwestern’s recent rise in recruiting success is somewhat predictable for a program that is coming off a historic 2018 season and is currently in the midst of its most consistently successful stretch in program history. When you win the Big Ten West along with three straight bowl games and boast perhaps the nicest facilities in all of college football, upwards mobility in the recruiting rankings seems to track along with it.

But divisional trophies and lakeside fieldhouses don’t tell the full story.

The impact of Anderson’s takeover can’t be understated. He seems to be bringing a new sense of passion and intensity to the helm of an offensive line that has been one of the more inconsistent parts of this program in recent seasons.

“I live by the motto and I want my players to live by the motto that you either get better or you get worse,” Anderson told Inside NU. “There is no staying the same. We have to know one speed and one speed only. Once the players take ownership and they put in the work, it just feeds the ego of what that identity that we’re trying to build here.”

Among the hundreds of coaches, players, recruits and spectators gathered in Ryan Fieldhouse that Saturday morning for the final day of 2019 spring practice, Anderson’s voice was unmistakeable. When players broke out for positional drills in all corners of the facility, his shouting could be heard from any and every corner of the place.

When an offensive lineman fired off the line quickly, stayed low and demonstrated perfect footwork, you couldn’t find a more excited man in the entire state of Illinois. But when one of his charges failed, the emotions flipped.

Observing Anderson at one practice was enough to reveal the type of fiery motivator he tries to be. But when asked whether he considers himself an “intense coach,” he laughed it off.

“Hey those are your words, not mine,” he said. “This is just who I am and what I do. Whatever we’ve done the day before we’ve gotta out work ourself. I need to out-coach myself on a daily basis.”

Anderson’s energy is already beginning to manifest itself in subtle, yet influential ways. For each of the three lineman who have committed in recent weeks, Anderson has responded with an impassioned tweet, welcoming a new “brother” to the #TrenchCats with emojis, hashtags and hilarious GIFS.

As simple and trivial as small things like this may seem, they’re emblematic of the identity and brotherhood-like mentality Anderson says he’s trying to bring to the Northwestern offensive line.

“In our room, it’s five guys working as one,” Anderson said. “You take away any part of the individual and focus on the teamwork.”

Ironically though, a “focus on the individual player” is what the recruits we talked to said attracted them to commit to Anderson and Northwestern. Both Priebe and Wrather raved about their one-on-one film room/practice sessions with Anderson and his ability to cater to each individual lineman’s needs.

“What I saw when I was at practice is that he really takes time individually to teach,” Wrather said. “He’ll stop the drill and tell you what to do need to do right then and there instead of just watching it on film the next day.”

“He’s developed so many great guys over the years,” Priebe said. “I’ve been in his film sessions and he’s sat down one-on-one with me and you can tell he’s good at working with all types of learners.”

It’s easy to understand why Anderson brings such a strong passion with him to his new role in Evanston. Although he didn’t join NU until last season as an offensive line coaching analyst, his blood runs purple.

Although he played college football at Michigan, Anderson was born in Evanston and grew up playing high school football at Glenbrook South just a little over ten miles from Northwestern’s campus. His father played football for Northwestern and he grew up working as Northwestern basketball ballboy in his middle school years.

“I don’t know if words can justify what [Northwestern football] has become,” Anderson said, gesturing toward the windows of Ryan Fieldhouse. “It’s so special. This program has always been near and dear to my heart. I know it means something to my father. I really don’t know if words can do it justice,” he reiterated.

“I think it’s something you have to come here and see for yourself.”