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Column: Northwestern football’s 2023 recruiting class is a beacon of hope — and a sign of change

The Wildcats are putting the nation on notice, paving the way for long-term success.

@AidanGray05 on Twitter.

A common adage around Northwestern’s campus is that if students can endure a dreary, bleak winter, a blossoming, rejuvenating spring will follow. That principle proved true in more than one way in 2022.

After up-and-down seasons from the Wildcats’ football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams, NU’s spring squads stole the spotlight. Softball made the Women’s College World Series for the first time in 15 years; lacrosse earned its third straight Final Four trip and nearly beat eventual national champion UNC; baseball showed flashes of competitiveness despite a rocky finish.

Even though its inaugural game in Dublin, Ireland is still over 75 days away, Northwestern football followed suit, capitalizing on a breathtaking late spring to accrue a spectacular recruiting class for 2023.

Take a gander at the top 2023 recruiting rankings, and you’ll marvel at where the Wildcats sit: 6th in 247 and 5th in Rivals. No, that isn’t a typo.

Through the start of June, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. have landed 17 recruits, three of which have a four-star rating (on either platform): Michael Kilbane, Mason Robinson and Nigel Glover. The ‘Cats have established an extremely deep and well-rounded class, including locking down quarterback (Aidan Gray), receiver (Frank Covey IV), tight end (Camp Magee), offensive line (Dylan Senda, Anthony Birsa, Jordan Knox, Alex Doost), defensive line (Robinson, Tyler Gant, Dylan Roberts), linebacker/edge rusher (Kilbane, Glover, Justin Cryer), cornerback (Joshua Fussell, Cole Shivers) and safety (Walters, Jacob Lewis).

For some experts, these early-season rankings are nothing more than eyewash, with many bemused by NU’s uncharacteristically superb ranking. While the team’s positioning will inevitably drop, the 2023 class sends crystal clear messages about the power of Northwestern football’s recruiting capability.

Being situated in the top 10 — ahead of national champion Georgia and powerhouses such as Clemson, Michigan and Alabama — is already worth capturing. The highest finish the ‘Cats have ever had in 247 history is 26th in 2001, when the purple and white signed Brett Basanez, Thomas Derricks, Zach Strief and Trai Essex, among others.

If Northwestern can keep up its stunning momentum, the Wildcats could maintain their phenomenal spot in the rankings. However, NU’s 17 signees are the most behind Cincinnati (18) and Texas Tech (20); the majority of schools, including the four mentioned above, do not even have 10 committed recruits.

Moreover, five of the top 10 and 13 of the top 20 national recruits in 2023 have yet to commit, including crown jewel Arch Manning, whose landing spot will reap significant ranking benefits. In other words, the majority of teams do not appear to have prioritized 2023 recruiting so early into the cycle.

That isn’t to say that being proactive is a bad thing. By taking charge of its future class, Northwestern has laid a foundation for continually adding major talent.

The timeline began when Senda became Fitzgerald’s first 2023 commit, picking the ‘Cats over Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in late December 2021. Since then, players have chosen NU over programs such as Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Mario Cristobal-led Miami, Penn State, reigning ACC Champion Pitt, College Football Playoff participant Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Washington and many more. That list is nothing to scoff at.

Arguably the most impressive feat about Northwestern’s 2023 bunch is that with each passing day, it feels as if a new star will announce their intentions to come to Evanston. The most recent one was Magee, declaring his commitment on June 5. Yet, the ‘Cats are likely far from done, with targets like four-star Adepoju Adebawore having yet to make a decision.

While Fitzgerald will receive the lion’s share of the attention, his assistants have put in considerable work to sway such big names and to create a long-term trajectory for the program. Two coaches that particularly stand out are Kurt Anderson, NU’s offensive line coach who ranks as 247’s ninth-best recruiter in 2023, and Ryan Smith, the ‘Cats’ new cornerbacks coach who has already lived up to his hype as a recruiter.

Northwestern is no stranger to bringing in premium players. The Wildcats will add two this upcoming season in four-stars Reggie Fleurima and Anto Saka; the team had four four-stars the year before in Jordan Mosley, Caleb Tiernan, Mac Uihlein and Anthony Tyus III.

The Classes of 2021 and 2022 had extra incentive to commit to NU based on recent team success, with the Wildcats winning the Citrus Bowl in January 2021 and emerging as the top team in the Big Ten West in 2018 and 2020.

However, the team is coming off a dismal season in 2021, finishing 3-9 with one conference victory — and a far greater number of disproportionate losses. While Fitzgerald expresses confidence in Northwestern’s 2022 squad, questions loom at quarterback, offensive line and throughout the defense, especially regarding how transfers will gel in Mike Bajakian and Jim O’Neil’s systems.

A disastrous last season is not enough to turn recruits away, and that sentiment speaks volumes. Even if the Wildcats struggle again in 2022, establishing early, meaningful relationships with top-flight players should be sufficient in maintaining interest and commitments.

Northwestern football has consistently ranked in the 40s and 50s nationally for its recruiting classes, though coaches would likely tell you those numbers mean little. Two-star recruits, like Sherrick McManis, can make the NFL, while four-stars like Devin O’Rourke may not see much on-field action.

Stars and rankings aside, Fitzgerald and his staff have utilized Northwestern’s combination of elite academics, marvelous facilities, standout coaches, a tight-knit program and Big Ten football as the perfect storm for recruits who could opt to play inside grander stadiums or under national championship-winning coaches.

In an era of NIL deals and persistent turnover, NU’s transformation into a highly sought-after school endures above all.