Excellent’ Cats Class Expected (Football)

Patrick Dorsey

By Patrick DorseyThe Daily Northwestern

Last season, Northwestern struggled to a 4-8 record, which included a loss to Division I-A New Hampshire and a blown 35-point second-half lead against Michigan State.

But the Wildcats won two of their last three games – and could pick up another victory today.

According to several recruiting services, NU is expected to sign a top-60 recruiting class today, when 19 players ink National Letters of Intent to play in Evanston.

On its five-star scale, Rivals.com rates 14 of these players as three-star prospects, 10 more than in last year’s class. Rivals also ranks the Cats 53rd nationally, ahead of conference rival Purdue, Fiesta Bowl champion Boise State and ACC champion Wake Forest.

“It’s an excellent class,” national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “This ranks with (late coach Randy) Walker’s best classes and (former coach Gary) Barnett’s best classes.”

Tim O’Halloran, Big Ten recruiting analyst for Rivals, also praised the class, calling it “very solid.”

Shifting the focus away from skill positions, coach Pat Fitzgerald and recruiting coordinator Kevin Johns are expected to bring in 13 players on the offensive line and defense. This includes three three-star offensive linemen, according to Rivals, three three-star defensive linemen and four defensive backs, three of whom also earned three stars.

Last season NU struggled in both areas. Under first-year offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, the line surrendered 26 sacks – tied for 73rd in the country – after giving up just 11 the year before.

Lemming said this year’s class could help fix that problem, especially St. Louis guard Niko Mafuli, whom Lemming called a “powerhouse” and said could become “a team leader.”

On defense, the Cats finished 85th nationally – the fourth time in the past five years they’ve ranked 85th or worse. They also came in 88th in scoring defense and 93rd against the run.

One player tabbed to shore up the defense is Eden Prairie, Minn., linebacker Bryce McNaul, whom Lemming and O’Halloran called a top-three player from Minnesota who is perfect for Fitzgerald’s soon-to-be-implemented 3-4 defensive scheme.

Another defensive prospect is cornerback Michael Bolden, an Evanston native who attends Evanston Township High School.

“I grew up watching Coach Fitz (when he was a linebacker at NU),” Bolden told The Daily in November. “I have a Fitzgerald jersey in my closet, so I was always a fan.”

Rivals ranks Bolden as the 33rd best cornerback in the nation. Fellow cornerback Jordan Mabin, a Nordonia, Ohio, native, is ranked 27th at his position, but also could play running back.

“I’m surprised the Buckeyes didn’t go after him,” Lemming said.

As usual, NU appears to have had great success in the Buckeye State, securing five Ohio natives. NU also held its own in the Chicago area, pulling in five prospects from the Windy City and its suburbs.

The Cats also are expecting to snag two prospects from Missouri and two from Michigan, including tight end Cameron Joplin, whom O’Halloran praised as a solid prospect.

Overall, Lemming said, NU’s class is expected to be an impressive one – especially given the short amount of recruiting time Fitzgerald, NU’s last recruiting coordinator, was given after Walker’s death last June.

“I think with each passing year, (Fitzgerald is) going to be getting better and better,” Lemming said. “He’s going to be worth his weight in gold in a couple of years.”

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