Football: Pro day a symbol of Northwestern’s newfound national prominence

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Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Earnest Brown IV at Northwestern’s pro day Tuesday, March 9. As a senior last season, Brown totaled 32 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups and a sack.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Sports Editor


Football


By a lot of metrics, Northwestern’s pro day Tuesday was a moment to celebrate. A time to bask in the adulation of bigwig NFL scouts and talent evaluators, to look at a talented crop of soon-to-be professional athletes and remember what they did in Evanston.

All 32 NFL teams sent scouts to Ryan Fieldhouse Tuesday to check in on the physical abilities of 11 NFL hopefuls. Some, like offensive lineman Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II, look like locks to be picked early on the first day of the draft. Others, like defensive back Earnest Brown IV and linebacker Paddy Fisher, who both secured NFL Combine invitations, might have to wait a little longer to hear their names called.

But it’s a marked change from recent years which have barely seen Northwestern athletes hear their names called on draft day. In 2018, running back Justin Jackson needed to wait until the seventh round before the Los Angeles Chargers made him that draft’s first and only NU selection. A year later, quarterback Clayton Thorson lasted until the fifth round, where he was nabbed by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Northwestern saw zero of its graduates selected in the 2020 NFL Draft and before this year, the team’s most recent first round pick was taken in 2005, when Luis Castillo went to the San Diego Chargers. That’s right, they hadn’t even moved yet.

A shift in the team’s perceived talent level means a chance at making the NFL can now be a part of the pitch Coach Pat Fitzgerald sells to prospective college athletes.

“Our program is on the rise,” Fitzgerald said. “When you see us, you see a consistent winner, you see a program that’s developing NFL talent, recruiting NFL talent and then playing at a championship level. You get that top ten football with top ten academics. There’s nobody else who can say that in the country right now.”

It’s a hard niche to find. Stanford had it for a while, back when Andrew Luck was slinging balls for the Cardinal in the early 2010’s. Northwestern has it now, it’s 35-19 Citrus Bowl win over Auburn a marker of how fast the Cats have grown in Fitzgerald’s tenure. NU’s 2013 victory against Mississippi State was the program’s first Bowl victory in 64 years. Now, success in the postseason is a norm.

Now, many of the stars on that Northwestern team are auditioning for the NFL. Paddy Fisher recorded 12 tackles that day in Orlando. Blake Gallagher had ten.

Fisher, who left college football as the NCAA’s active leader in career tackles and forced fumbles, chose Northwestern over the likes of Oklahoma State, UCF and fellow Big Ten power Wisconsin.

“Coming in it was ‘win the West.’ Now it’s ‘win the Big Ten,’” Fisher said. “Shooting for Rose Bowls and National Championships. As years go by and as we’re sending more and more guys to the next level, the bar is just being set higher and higher.”

Newly armed with a contract that will keep him in purple-and-white for the next decade, Fitzgerald looks set to keep raising the bar with their recruiting chops.

“Coach Fitz does a great job all the way around the country,” defensive back Earnest Brown IV said. “He doesn’t just look at one specific spot. He just keeps aiming at those talents from schools from all over. Greg Newsome’s from IMG and he showed off today during the whole day.”

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Twitter: @gsvirnovskiy

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