Promise of titles, NU degrees lure top-notch recruiting class

Glenn Kasses

By the end of his junior year of high school, dozens of colleges and universities were pursuing Thomas Derricks. At 6-foot-1, 290 pounds, he was one of the best prep defensive tackles in the country.

Schools such as Penn State and Notre Dame put their state-of-the-art facilities on display. They hoped to woo Derricks, who hails from Jesuit Prep in Dallas, with the tradition and sheer muscle of their football programs.

So Derricks’ decision to call Northwestern head coach Randy Walker and commit to the Wildcats’ purple for the next four years raised more than a few eyebrows.

But Derricks knew exactly what he was looking for in college – a great theater department.

“It surprised a lot of folks, myself included,” said Bob Wunderlick, Derricks’ high school coach. “I kind of thought he was going to go to Nebraska way back when, and then Notre Dame or Penn State.

“All the schools he narrowed it down to were strong academically, and Northwestern was probably the strongest of the schools. He loved the fine arts department and I guess it’s one of the best in the nation.”

Certainly Derricks’ desire to be involved with the arts is somewhat unusual for a football recruit, with the exception of former NU great Darnell Autry. But it’s almost normal for the class Walker will announce at 6 p.m. today, the first day coaches can officially ink recruits to a scholarship for next season.

And players like Derricks may be the first indication that NU’s co-Big Ten Championship is resulting in more talent for the future.

“Northwestern is really selling the fact that they’re a team that’s made it over the hump and is looking for bigger and better,” Wunderlick said. “Thomas is kind of a signal of that. I don’t know if he’s their top recruit, but he certainly is one of them.”

Walker is expected to nab at least 20 players. Recruiting gurus are already calling it one of the best classes ever to sign on the dotted line for the Cats. And if there is one common denominator with Walker’s recruits, it is this: they all want to be at NU.

Consider Jeff Backes, this year’s Mr. Football in Ohio – an award given to the top high school player in a pigskin paradise (recent recipients include Charles Woodson and Curtis Enis). The undersized running back (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) rushed for 3,354 yards and 44 touchdowns in his senior season, leading his school to a state championship.

But Backes, too, knew exactly what he was looking for – a strong pre-med program.

Backes aspires to be a doctor like his father. In NU he saw a school where he could utilize both his 4.0 smarts and his 4.4 speed in the 40.

“Not many Big Ten teams can compare academically with the Ivy League, and no Ivy League schools can compete athletically in the Big Ten,” said Backes, who chose NU over Virginia and hometown Ohio State. “That’s what makes Northwestern such a special university.”

Not convinced? Then take a look at local boy Brett Basanez, one of the best players in Illinois. Basanez, a quarterback from Arlington Heights, who had to replace current Miami tailback Jarrett Payton as the star player at his high school, has the field savvy and arm strength to become a star.

Kevin Kelly, his high school coach, said he’d be “shocked if he’s not a top-flight quarterback in that league really soon.”

But once again, Basanez knew exactly what he was looking for – a sterling sports medicine program.

“God willing, I’d love to go to the pros,” Basanez said. “That’s definitely my goal. But I’d love to have something solid to fall back on. A degree from Northwestern – it just speaks for itself. Kids that don’t play sports want to go to Northwestern.”

Basanez decided to commit to NU in the middle of his senior season despite garnering national attention as he piled numbers at St. Viator. The Cats’ impressive, if not miraculous, season – Basanez watched the Michigan game in person – confirmed his decision.

Basanez actually met Derricks and Trai Essex, another one of NU’s highly rated recruits, at a recent all-star game in Texas. Being there and talking to his future teammates, Basanez said he knew he was among a select group of people – people who, like him, knew they wanted excellence in the classroom and on the playing field.

“They all sounded like they wanted to be there, they wanted to win,” Basanez said. “And they’re just really excited about the whole experience. I know a lot of things are coming out with the rank of the recruiting class and everything. But it’s not how they rank us now, it’s what we can do when we get there. It’s what we can do for Northwestern in our four or five years there.”