Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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2005: A class by itself

Northwestern traditionally has had little to offer high school football recruits. After all, a long history of losing doesn’t exactly draw top-tier talent to Evanston.

But Randy Walker found a way around that dilemma. First, he put together a winning team, going 8-4 in his second season at NU. Second, he found something he can promise any high school senior – regardless of his team’s record.

“Competition is a beautiful thing,” Walker said at a news conference Wednesday. “I promise every kid we recruit a couple of things, and one of them is that I’m going to try to recruit somebody to beat you out next year. I said it to (current freshman quarterback) Tony Stauss a year ago. I said it to (high school quarterback) Brett Basanez. And I’ll say it to the next one.”

Walker inked 20 high school seniors to letters of intent Wednesday, the first day schools can sign players for next year. The recruiting class of 2001 is considered by many to be one of the Wildcats’ finest ever – and this year’s batch might be poised to take a few starting jobs from older players.

In addition to Basanez, maybe the top quarterback in Illinois, Walker signed tailback Jeff Backes, Ohio’s “Mr. Football”; Texas defensive tackle Thomas Derricks, who chose NU over Nebraska; and highly touted tight end Trai Essex of Fort Wayne, Ind.

He also announced that Florida transfer David Wasielewski, a punter and placekicker, and Notre Dame transfer Jovan Witherspoon, a wideout, would be eligible to play this season.

Still, as happy as Walker was to have a group that could bring in future Big Ten titles, he’s more than ready to get back to football and spring practice.

“I always say this is one of my favorite days,” Walker told a room packed with beaming NU boosters. “I certainly enjoy the excitement and the opportunity to meet new people and talk about a program I feel so strongly about. But about the end of January here or the first week of February, I’m getting awful tired of it. You can only be nice so long.”

The niceness ends when spring practice begins in a little more than a month. That’s when Walker’s rigorous offseason training program – one the Cats credited for their fourth-quarter success last year – will kick into full gear. And when the Cats go to Camp Kenosha in August to prepare for the season, the new signees will see the same side of Walker.

But he probably won’t have to worry about grumbling from the new freshmen. With every recruiting class, more of his players will become just that – his.

“I talked to him, and he told me that Northwestern, being such a fine school academically and athletically, doesn’t really need to go out and get someone that doesn’t want to be there,” said Basanez, widely regarded as the best player in the Chicago area this year, on Tuesday. “When he first got there, a bunch of kids left because they didn’t want to be there and play for him. It’s better to have kids that want to be there that don’t have as much talent than it is to have kids that just don’t care but have more talent.”

And Walker’s recruiting has drawn people who can endure his long, hard-hitting practices. He has said he doesn’t believe in “hard-selling” recruits, preferring to find those who are willing to accept the risks and the rewards of NU’s program.

Kevin Kelly, Basanez’s high school coach, said Walker’s hands-off approach helps him snag the type of player he’s looking for. When Walker told Kelly last summer he was planning to offer a scholarship to Basanez, he explained his recruiting strategy.

“He said, ‘Look, our first goal is to make sure Brett has a great senior year,'” Kelly recalled. “‘We’re not going to pester him. We hope that he takes a visit here and we certainly hope he comes here. That’s why we’re offering to him. We’re not going to be as aggressive as other people.’ And I think Brett appreciated that.”

Walker may have brought in as much talent in one class as the Cats have ever seen. Still, he emphasized that it will be at least three years before anyone knows how much the class of 2005 will contribute.

But Walker said he thinks this crop has what it takes.

“The world is full of talented people. It’s full of them,” Walker said. “But what put another Big Ten championship out in that lobby was a passion, an attitude and a commitment to work.

“We’ve brought in a class that represents our institution very well.”

And, for the first time since 1996, NU can boast of a winning institution. Walker said the team’s co-Big Ten championship this past season made recruiting a little easier.

He cited Stauss’ story: The Racine, Wis., native was considered one of the top passers in the Midwest and was recruited hard by Wisconsin, where his father was team MVP in 1979. But Stauss picked NU.

“That young man took a leap of faith,” Walker said. “That leap was a little shorter for them this year. We had evidence, if you will.”

It helps that the incoming recruits also stack up in the classroom. All Walker has to worry about is putting together another winning season, something that not all coaches can claim.

“All across the country for the next six months a whole bunch of coaches are going to be holding their breath, having sleepless nights hoping their kids qualify (academically),” said Walker, pausing as his point hit home. “These kids are already qualified. They don’t have to worry about that at Northwestern. We got guys who are going to be able to show up in August, put a helmet on and start playing football.”

Walk this way
NU coach Randy Walker signed 20 preps to national letters of intent Wednesday

Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Hometown/High school
Ashton Aikens RB 6-2 190 Detroit/Country Day
Jeff Backes RB 5-10 180 Columbus, Ohio/Upper Arlington
Brett Basanez QB 6-2 175 Arlington Heights, Ill./St. Viator
Sundi Brewer-Griffin RB 6-0 180 St. Paul, Minn./St. Paul Academy
Luis Castillo DT 6-4 265 Garfield, N.J./Garfield
Vince Clarke OT< /font> 6-5 275 El Cajon, Calif./Granite Hills
Thomas Derricks DT 6-1 295 Garland, Texas/Jesuit Prep
Trai Essex TE 6-4 240 Fort Wayne, Ind./Paul Harding
Jonathan Fields CB 5-8 170 Sweeny, Texas/Sweeny
Herschel Henderson S 6-3 190 Houston/Clear Lake
Braden Jones LB 6-2 220 Harrisburg, Ill./Harrisburg
Taylor Jones LB 6-3 230 Gladstone, Mo./Winnetonka
Greg Lutzen DE 6-5 250 Pewaukee, Wis./Pewaukee
John Pickens LB 6-2 215 Franklin Lakes, N.J./Ramapo
Dominique Price S 6-0 205 Jeffersontown, Ky./DuPont Manual
Zach Strief OT 6-7 305 Milford, Ohio/Milford
Frederic Tarver WR 6-2 195 Palmyra, Va./Fluvanna County
David Thompson DE 6-3 245 Rockledge, Fla./Rockledge
David Wasielewski* P/PK 5-10 220 Odessa, Fla./Belen Jesuit
DeMaris Wilson DE 6-4 245 Harvest, Ala./Sparkman
Jovan Witherspoon** WR 6-3 210 Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Luers
Joe Wohlscheid TE 6-7 245 Grand Ledge, Mich./Grand Ledge
*Transferred from Florida
**Transferred from Notre Dame

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
2005: A class by itself