Signing Day 2014: ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren discusses how the Wildcats stack up

John Paschall, Reporter

The Daily caught up with ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren to discuss Northwestern’s 2014 recruiting class, including potential stars and sleepers.

The Daily Northwestern: With three ESPN 300 recruits, is it safe to say this is Northwestern’s best recruiting class in recent memory?

Tom VanHaaren: This is definitely one of the better classes Pat Fitzgerald has had at Northwestern. The three ESPN 300 commitments in this class equals the number in the 2011 to 2013 classes combined. There are five commits ranked as four-stars as well, and this class is going to help fill a lot of needs. Three big running backs, including in-state Justin Jackson, quarterback Clayton Thorson and tight end Garrett Dickerson are all pieces of the class who will help bolster the offense in the future. It’s not a huge class, but the coaches made the most of the scholarship spots they had.

The Daily: It seems like Thorson really improved his game his senior year as well as in the offseason (being named player of the game at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl always helps). What did you notice was the biggest change in Thorson, and what kind of player are the Wildcats getting?

VanHaaren: Clayton has good size, he’s an accurate passer and he’s a smart kid. We have him ranked as the No. 7 pocket-passer in this class and a four-star overall, within the ESPN 300. I think first and foremost, he fits with what Northwestern wants to do on offense. He ran a similar offense in high school and believes that he can be an accurate passer but also somewhat of a threat on the ground. He had around 600 yards rushing this past season with 12 touchdowns, so he showed that on the field. He has been working with former NFL quarterback Kent Graham since Thorson was in seventh grade, so I think he’s seen a lot of growth and maturity in his game as he’s progressed through the years, partially because of that training. They work together on a weekly basis and focus on mechanics, film study and understanding defenses. That training on the field, but also knowing how to prepare for a defense, will help him tremendously in college. 

The Daily: You’d think going 1-7 in Big Ten play and 5-7 overall would scare recruits away. But Fitzgerald was able to get two of his biggest targets, Bolingbrook cornerback Parrker Westphal and Dickerson, after the season was over. How was he able to do that and keep most of the class together?

VanHaarenWestphal comes from an outstanding family and had help in the process from his father and older brother, who was also recruited out of high school. They took their time, studied every aspect of each school and program. They weren’t just looking for a good fit on the field, but academically as well. Westphal’s father, Brian, wanted his son to pick a school he would be happy with if football was taken out of the equation, and that ended up being Northwestern. The type of prospect who chooses a school like Northwestern is a different type of recruit. They aren’t just picking the school for football, but they all understand the importance of academics and their degree. Northwestern targets a very specific recruit, and there are no soft sale pitches when it comes to the families. Everyone is bought in to the program as a whole, rather than a football product. 

The Daily: Northwestern found itself in unfamiliar territory when it had three players (Jordan Thomas, Dareian Watkins and Noah Westerfield) decommit. Which of those three players was the biggest loss to the class?

VanHaaren: I think it was probably Dareian Watkins. He is an athlete who probably could’ve helped out in a few different areas. He could be a wide receiver, could be a wildcat quarterback in certain situations as he plays quarterback for his high school team or even on defense. His versatility combined with some of the other offensive prospects, I think he would have been a really nice addition to the class. 

The Daily: In four or five years from now, who will be the best player coming out of this class?

VanHaaren: I’m going to cop out and say the three ESPN 300 commitments. I know that’s the easy answer, but Westphal, Dickerson and Thorson are all very, very good prospects who have a chance to do something special. What doesn’t show up in a star ranking or an evaluation is who the prospect is off the field, how they will transition to the college game and what they will do on their own to make sure they succeed. All three of those guys are the kind of kids you don’t have to worry about as a coach. They all have exceptional talent, but great character and solid foundations at home. 

The Daily: Fitzgerald and his coaching staff are known for making the most out of two and three-star talents. What under-the-radar recruit should Northwestern fans keep their eyes on?

VanHaaren: Offensive lineman Tommy Doles out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a little undersized right now but was recruited by Michigan for a while. He is a really smart player with a lot of potential. I think once he gets into a college strength and conditioning program, bulks up and gets into the rotation, he will turn some heads.

The Daily: Fitzgerald and his staff love to stay ahead of the game and close out classes early. What are some names Wildcat fans should keep an eye on with this 2015 class?

VanHaaren: Recruiting is happening earlier and earlier in general, so plenty of offers have gone out. A few guys I like are tight end Jackson Harris out of Tennessee, wide receiver Alex Ofodile and defensive end Jonathan Holland, who hasn’t been offered yet. It wouldn’t be Northwestern if they didn’t offer kids with great names either, so here are a few prospects to watch not only because their names are awesome, but they happen to be good at football, too. Wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, running back Bolu Olorunfunmi and linebacker Mustafa Branch.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @John_Paschall