By Eric Burgher
As Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald sat down to greet the media Wednesday at the team’s national signing day event, he knew he’d be introducing one of the best classes of his tenure.
The Wildcats’ 2017 class is ranked No. 46 in the country and No. 10 in the Big Ten, according to 247sports. And while projections from 247 and other recruiting services indicate this group has the potential to be one of the most successful of Fitzgerald’s tenure, he’s not ready to talk about its impact on the field.
“We’ve always talked about our fit,” Fitzgerald said. “Who we’re looking for as a young man and our uniqueness starts with our academic profile. And if you fit our academic profile then we’re going to be really excited about getting to know you.”
Northwestern is still far from being a top destination for recruits, even within the Big Ten. But after consecutive bowl appearances and five in the last seven years, the team’s on-field achievements are part of the profile, especially given the recruiting success they’ve had after winning seasons.
The last Northwestern class that ranked this high – which included current All-Big Ten honorees Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson – was recruited in 2012, when the Wildcats finished with their first 10-win season since 1995 and first bowl game victory since 1948.
The 2017 recruits, many of whom were targeted as juniors in 2015, saw the Wildcats finish 10-3, the team’s best record since 2012. A program source said the 2015 success helped Northwestern nab top recruit Earnest Brown, a four-star defensive end who Wednesday chose the Wildcats over Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas.
And given the success Fitzgerald has had on the defensive line lately with Ifeadi Odenigbo, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, it’s possible that the top three players in this year’s class – Brown, Sam Miller and Trevor Kent, all defensive linemen – will have an opportunity to see the same type of results.
But with 17 of Northwestern’s 22 starters from last season returning, this group is under no pressure to produce right away.
“They’ve got time for these prospects in this class to develop and bring them up the right way, the way they want to,” said ESPN college football recruiting analyst Tom VanHaaren. “They’ll have a chance to sit behind some of these guys and learn from them and figure out what it takes to be a college football player and what it takes to win at Northwestern.”
It remains to be seen the kind of long-term impact this class will have, but it shows that while Northwestern will continue to use Fitzgerald’s “go 1-0 every week” mantra, the program still has a keen eye on the future.
“As we continue to climb the mountain of being a championship program, it’s just solidified more and more to me that who we are is what makes us special and unique,” Fitzgerald said. “And we’ve got to continue to push that envelope to recruit that fit harder and harder. Because I think it’s a pretty unique group of guys and when they have that shared vision, man, look out. You have a chance to have something special.”