Even with a sore throat, you could hear the enthusiasm in Pat Fitzgerald’s voice.
After a rough 2021 season, Fitz was excited on National Signing Day, when he and his program officially welcomed a class of 15 graduating high school players — including one unexpected addition — to the Northwestern football program.
“Just a really special group,” he told reporters Wednesday morning. “They’re great leaders in their community, in the classroom, in their programs.”
While the arrival of the new Wildcats may have represented a moment of transition after a difficult 3-9 campaign, the group itself had seen major changes in the last week alone.
Early Sunday afternoon, defensive lineman Denis Jaquez announced that he would not sign a letter of intent to play at NU as he had previously planned and instead was reopening his recruitment. The day after Jaquez — who wound up committing to and signing at Syracuse — announced his plans to decommit from Northwestern, the ‘Cats received a piece of good news in the form of a commitment from quarterback Jack Lausch, who had previously been committed to Notre Dame as a scholarship baseball player and a preferred walk-on football player.
Lausch, a resident of the South Side neighborhood of Beverly and a current student at Chicago Catholic League school Brother Rice, was named the league’s player of the year this past season and was named Chicago’s top player of 2021 by the Chicago Sun-Times. As such, despite carrying no football scholarship offers from any other Power Five school, his decision to abandon the blue blood halls of South Bend for the nearby shores of Evanston heralded attention from those familiar with the Chicagoland football scene. Many of them were unaware that Fitzgerald and his staff had been recruiting him in the first place.
“We didn’t tell anybody by design,” Fitz said of Lausch’s recruitment, laughing. “We stole one. I’m fired up about it. I watched him play last spring when he had a great game against Loyola Academy. We were on the road this year when they played, and I had an unbelievable, ace recruiter in the stands named my wife Stacy. And she texted me, ‘This Lausch kid is phenomenal.’”
Lausch’s commitment wasn’t NU’s final before the NLI’s began to roll in, though. Early Wednesday morning, linebacker Kenny Soares announced via Twitter that he was flipping his commitment from Colorado to Northwestern. Soon thereafter, his NLI arrived at Walter Athletics Center and he became the first official member of the Wildcats’ Class of 2022. According to Fitzgerald, when a window closed with the decommitment from Jaquez, a door opened in the form of a scholarship offer extended to Soares.
“Recruiting’s fluid,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a scholarship become available... we absolutely loved Kenny, but we were kind of full in what we saw in our number allocation. When a scholarship came available, we kinda started back down that road. I got on Zoom last night with Kenny and his family, and a couple hours later we had a pretty awesome conversation.
“Last to be offered and first to sign,” he added with a smile.
With the early signing period now winding down, the attention of Fitzgerald’s staff now turns in part to the transfer portal, from which the Northwester head coach said the team plans to “[add] pieces to get our program back to a championship level.”
Still, though, Fitzgerald said that despite an evolving transfer process that has loosened restrictions on players seeking to change schools and has seen a drastic jump in the number of transferring players, Northwestern’s personnel-building focus will remain generally on the high school level.
“We’re all trying to figure this thing out,” he said of the recent changes to the portal and uptick in transfers. “Every college coach is. Every program is. I’m going about it a philosophical way to build our roster with high school football players. We are going to do that. That is what we are going to do. And then we’ll plug and play based on the portal.”
He then continued with his thoughts on how the portal would impact programs like his own at academically-prestigious schools.
“Northwestern, Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke, Vanderbilt, your academic schools are not going to have guys leave,” he said. “Those days are with the dinosaurs, it’s over. That’s not the way it’s gonna be anymore. We didn’t make those rules, so we have to adapt to do what’s right for our program, and that’s what we will continue to do.”
With the Signing Day additions — and the potential for more new pieces acquired through the portal — at the center of the conversation, Fitzgerald’s mind was still on the players he already has in Evanston.
“I’m fired up about our guys coming back,” he said. “I think we’ve got the makings of having something special.”