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Northwestern football recruiting on National Signing Day: Wildcats land a strong, but small, topsy-turvy class

Northwestern's recruiting process was uncharacteristically topsy-turvy, but the Wildcats turned in the best class in school history despite a small allotment of players.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

It's National Signing Day, and Northwestern has entered the world of college football recruiting.

Lsat year, we wrote about how Northwestern liked its signing days boring. This December, as the Wildcats locked up their 15th commit in a class that only had 15 spots, we wrote about how that meant this signing day would be boring. Because Northwestern has always made a big deal about doing things Northwestern's Way, and that came down to recruiting, free of hat games and drama and the like.

But this year's Northwestern recruiting class is different for so many reasons. It's different in that it resembles classes from around college football much more than any other Northwestern class we can recall, both in terms of talent and in terms of the strange way the final few weeks developed.

We weren't able to go day-by-day on NU football recruiting because of a combo of a) lack of interest b) real job c) no access to players, so please go read Inside NU, whose coverage is spectacular. But after cramming, we can take a peek at the overlying themes of Northwestern's 2014 recruiting class:

Legit blue chips

There are only 15 players in Northwestern's class, making it the smallest Wildcat bunch in recent memories, but with four consensus four-star players, it has more than the entirety of Pat Fitzgerald's previous eight years as head coach.

NU had two prior four-star recruits: Patrick Ward was a four star in some services, and turned out to be a valuable offensive lineman for the Wildcats for four years after earning playing time as a true freshman. Ifeadi Odenigbo was a consensus four-star, and looked spectacular with had 5.5 sacks this past season as a freshman. So, I'd say NU is two-for-two with players they recruited with high star ratings.

This year, there were four. CB Parrker Westphal, RB Justin Jackson, and TE/DE Garrett Dickerson were all ranked as four-stars in all four major rankings services, while QB Clayton Thorson was a four-star everywhere besides Scout.

This class had a higher amount -- and a significantly higher proportion -- of players that other schools wanted that Northwestern ended up getting. When it comes down to it, that's what college football recruiting is about, and in that way, this is Northwestern's best class in school history by several miles.

Things got weird

Pat Fitzgerald's recruiting MO has always been one based on loyalty. You get hurt? Your scholarship offer is still valid. You visit another school while committed to us? Your scholarship offer is no longer valid. You're committed someplace else? Bummer. We'll move on.

In 2013, Northwestern had one decommit, Ray Davison. He took a visit to Cal in January, Fitz pulled his scholarship, and then he was a Cal commit. It doesn't really seem like Northwestern made any attempts to replace him, although there was still a possibility of NU landing other commits with outstanding offers, which they did not. I can't really recall any other decommitments since I started paying attention to NU football. If there has been one, suffice it to say, they have been relatively rare.

In 2014, Northwestern had a whopping four decommits. And each time, like Whack-A-Mole, Northwestern offered and received a commitment from someone else.

NU once had an additional four-star recruit, Dareian Watkins, a high school QB likely to play WR at the next level. But in December, he reconsidered, and eventually wound up committing to Wisconsin. This was before NU had filled its class, so its tough to say who his direct replacement was.

In mid-January, word came that although Northwestern's class was full, they had received a commitment from three-star Memphis linebacker James Prather. This seemed strange, until almost instantaneously, the other shoe dropped. Three-star Texas linebacker had flipped his commitment to Cal.

And immediately after that, news again dropped that three-star Texas linebacker Jordan Thomas had flipped his commitment to Oklahoma, leaving the Wildcats once again with only 14 commits in a class with 15 spots. This time, some time elapsed, but NU got its offers out, and this past weekend, landed a commitment from three-star Texas defensive end Xavier Washington.

And then, things got really weird. Right after landing Washington, we got word that NU had pursued Jared McGee, a Texas safety who had already committed to Larry Coker at UTSA. Fitz was always uninterested in pursuing players who had committed elsewhere, and also always uninterested in offering scholarships when no slots were available. "Loyalty," yanno? But McGee's offer was hypothetically for a "greyshirt," meaning the Cats would ask him to wait around for a semester and take classes at a community college before getting a scholarship next year. And it's an arrangement McGee was okay with.

But then last night, Hamilton Anoa'i switched his pledge from NU to Cal, the third Wildcat to go Bear in the past two recruiting cycles.

This is not unique to Northwestern. Every school is privy to the ebbs and flows of 17-year-olds interest, and decommitments have become as big a part of signing day as fax machines, bringing to life the terms "solid verbal" and "soft verbal" and etc. In fact, NU had been oddly immune to it.

But this year, as the team scuttled to a 1-7 conference record after landing its best class of all time, you had to see this coming. NU lost four guys they wanted. In their defense, NU was prepared and had backup plans, but assuredly, they are backup plans. Prather, Washington, and McGee, the three latest commits, are the thee lowest rated in 247's composite rankings. Per Rivals, they are NU's only two-star commits.

Size matters

Although this is by all accounts the best recruiting class in NU history, it isn't particularly highly rated. ESPN is very optimistic, putting the Wildcats at No. 35, fifth in the conference. 247's composite has the Wildcats at No. 43, seventh in the conference. Scout has the Wildcats at No. 55, ninth in the conference. And Rivals has NU at No. 63, 10th in the league.

But isn't this bad? Being No. 43, seventh in the conference? We have to play the guys who are first-through-sixth, and we expect to win conference titles?

Well, it's not good. But for starters, its an improvement: Everybody except for Rivals sees this year as a better class than NU had last year, with 247's composite placing the Wildcats' last three groups at No. 52, 55, and 62. And those were considered "good classes" for Northwesten.

And secondly, this was the best NU could have done. (Well, they could have not had decommits, but close to the best.) Only seven of the 43 classes ranked above NU have less than 20 players committing, and of those, only one has as few as 15: USC's.

Northwestern was only capable of signing 15 commits. They even tried to get around this by dipping into the morally icky waters of greyshirting. Amongst schools that only had 15 recruits, they are the second-best in the country. And considering USC is waiting on several blue-chippers on signing day, they will probably have the best 15-man class in the country.

It's possible Northwestern could have done better. But considering they were only allowed to bring in 15 guys, this was a pretty solid job by Fitz and co.