Football: Fitzgerald lauds Big Ten Network, Ryan Fieldhouse in signing day press conference


Bobby Pillote/Daily Senior Staffer

Pat Fitzgerald speaks during his signing day news conference. The coach welcomed 26 new players to the program, including six walk-ons and one graduate transfer.

Bobby Pillote, Reporter

For scouting reports on NU’s 19 scholarship commitments, explore The Daily’s interactive graphic here.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald welcomed 26 new players to Northwestern’s football program Wednesday, pointing to a widening national footprint and improving facilities as reasons for the Wildcats’ success on the recruiting trail.

“I think we filled all of our needs,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re always trying to add speed and solidify the line of scrimmage, and I think we did that with this class.”

The Cats drew scholarship players from eight states across the country, with just two, wide receiver Jace James and cornerback Cameron Ruiz, hailing from Illinois. Five players came from Ohio, five came from Texas and three came from Georgia, all familiar pipeline states for NU over the past several recruiting cycles.

Fitzgerald echoed his longstanding sentiment that his recruiting “starts and ends in Chicagoland,” but pointed to personal relationships and increased national exposure as reasons why the Cats have increasingly found success in far-flung southern states.

“Now that we’ve got (the Big Ten Network) … our brand is very strong throughout the country, especially in the state of Texas,” Fitzgerald said. “If you go down to the state of Texas and beat (the University of) Texas on a defensive player, that’s big.”

The coach also lauded Ryan Fieldhouse, NU’s soon-to-be-completed lakeside practice facility, as a boon in this recruiting cycle as well as in the years to come.

“To know this group is going to be in there … is a game-changer for us,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think we’re just getting started. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement, not only in our day-to-day facilities, but then down the road with Ryan Field. And that’s coming.”

Pointing to a different trend in NU’s recruiting, the 2017 class also includes two early enrollees.  Defensive tackle Sam Miller and superback Trey Pugh, the two to enroll early, are just the third and fourth players to enter school early under Fitzgerald.

Sophomore defensive back Parrker Westphal became the program’s first early entrant three years ago, followed by redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tommy Carnifax last year. Enrolling early allows a player to participate in the team’s spring practices which could give them a leg up on their classmates and a better shot at playing as a true freshman, which is rare at NU. Westphal and Carnifax have yet to find major success, largely due to injury, and Fitzgerald declined to say whether Miller and Pugh might become contributors right away.

“I’m done predicting,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ll leave it to (those guys) on the internet on where guys are going to end up going.”

Miller and Pugh join 17 other scholarship signees, six preferred walk-ons and one graduate transfer to form the team’s 26 total new members. Fitzgerald praised the character and scholarship of the group, pointing out that recruits have to be more careful than ever in the age of social media.

“(Their) average GPA was a 3.55,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s the smartest group of guys we’ve ever recruited.”

The class is also notable for having four specialists, including a rare scholarship kicker in Charlie Kuhbander. The Springboro, Ohio native is the fifth-best kicker in the country, according to 247Sports. He’s joined by graduate transfer Luke Otto, who kicked for Western Illinois, walk-on punter Cody Gronewald and walk-on long snapper Peter Snodgrass. Given his talent, Kuhbander could be in the mix to replace graduating kicker Jack Mitchell.

Overall Fitzgerald declared the class a success, noting he was particularly pleased with NU’s “hit rate” — the percentage of players offered who end up committing. Fitzgerald said this figure was 22 percent and also noted 18 of the Cats’ 19 scholarship players were committed before their senior year began.

“This group is tight-knit; they’ve been on a group chat together for a few months,” Fitzgerald said. “(I’m) just excited to get them here.”

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