Putterman: Northwestern football led by unheralded-recruits-turned-stars

Alex Putterman, Assistant Gameday Editor

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Trivia question: Who was the lone four-star recruit in Northwestern football’s 2013 class? Hint: It wasn’t All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker or three-year starter Matthew Harris or dynamic safety Godwin Igwebuike. Nope, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, the class’s top prospect was quarterback Matt Alviti, a man who has contributed three pass attempts this season.

The Wildcats’ top recruit in the class of 2012? Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who plays only on third downs; followed by running back Malin Jones, who barely saw the field before transferring; then guard Adam DePietro, who is out for the season with an injury.

The highest-ranked recruit in NU’s class of 2014? Cornerback Parrker Westphal, who has barely played in two seasons.

NU’s recruiting has improved greatly in recent years, which should make a major difference for coach Pat Fitzgerald and company in the future. Already, the Cats’ best offensive player, Justin Jackson, was a widely coveted four-star recruit, in the same class as starting quarterback and fellow four-star recruit, Clayton Thorson.

But this season’s 10-2 record, No. 13 national ranking and Outback Bowl bid weren’t won on the recruiting trail, at least not in the traditional sense. This group remains powered by the rather overlooked two- and three-star recruits Fitzgerald has successfully cultivated for a decade.

Walker, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, was the 758th-best player and 62nd-best linebacker in the class of 2013, according to 247Sports. The Cats’ stellar secondary is composed of the 87th-best cornerback in the class of 2011 (Nick VanHoose), the 168th-best cornerback in the class of 2013 (Harris), the 71st-best safety in the class of 2012 (Traveon Henry) and the 18th-best safety in the class of 2013 (Igwebuike).

The linebackers who start alongside Walker — senior Drew Smith and redshirt freshman Nate Hall — were ranked 79th and 120th, respectively, at the position out of high school. Now a starter, C.J. Robbins was once a two-star prospect and the 111th-rated high school defensive tackle in the nation.

NU’s top pass-catcher this season is former two-star recruit Dan Vitale. The team’s leading wide receiver? Former walk-on Austin Carr. Best offensive linemen? Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier, both ranked outside the top 50 recruits at their position out of high school.

Then there’s defensive end Dean Lowry, now an NFL Draft prospect and arguably the Cats’ best player. Lowry was not ranked among the nation’s top 1,000 prospects in the Class of 2012. He was he graded as the 127th-best defensive end that year. He was awarded two out of five stars. And, according to 247Sports, he was rated as the worst player in the NU class, below even a long-snapper.

The Cats’ depth chart is littered with players few Big Ten teams wanted out of high school who are now making a huge impact for one of the conference’s top teams.

Some of the disparities between NU players’ recruiting ratings and college production owe to the imperfections of the rankings themselves. But more than that, the over-performance relative to ratings is an enormous testament to the developmental ability of Fitzgerald and his assistant coaches, who have repeatedly turned nobody recruits into college stars. NU has never been able to compete in recruiting with bigger Big Ten powers who boast flashier histories and fancier facilities, but throughout the Fitzgerald era the Cats have found diamonds in the rough from Texas (running back Venric Mark) to Ohio (defensive end Tyler Scott) to Pennsylvania (quarterback Dan Persa) to northern Illinois (Lowry).

With recruiting already on the rise and a new football complex coming, NU soon might not need to work quite so hard to find stars — already, big-time prospects Jackson, Thorson, Igwebuike, Garrett Dickerson, Jordan Thompson and others are breaking the out-of-nowhere mold. But though those guys are crucial members of the Cats squad that will face No. 23 Tennessee in the Outback Bowl on Friday, the core of this team is a batch of once-overlooked recruits defying expectations.

A starting lineup of four- and five-star recruits might be cool, but there’s something distinctly fun about players the rest of the Big Ten once didn’t want beating up on the coaches who passed over them. So before the Cats’ depth chart becomes crowded with top prospects, savor Lowry, Vitale, Harris and all the rest who weren’t supposed to be great players but became them anyway.

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutterman