Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman
Calvin Johnson II grew up watching Southeastern Conference football.
Throughout his life, the French Camp, Miss. native attended Mississippi State games, becoming familiar with the Bulldogs’ SEC opponents, including Auburn.
So when then-No. 14 Northwestern defeated the Tigers in the 2021 Vrbo Citrus Bowl, Johnson II, a three-star athlete and the 20th-best player from Mississippi in the 2021 recruiting class according to the 247 Sports Composite, knew the Wildcats were a winning program.
NU also provided what Johnson II was looking for: high-level football, a great education and a family-like atmosphere.
“On the last Zoom meeting I had before I committed, (coach Pat Fitzgerald) asked me what was keeping me from being a Northwestern Wildcat,” Johnson told The Daily in February. “And I just couldn’t think of an answer to it.”
He committed to NU on Feb. 3, a member of what would become the nation’s 50th best recruiting class. Composed of 16 players and ranking 11th in the Big Ten, the Cats’ 2021 class arrived in Evanston following the program’s best season since 1995.
As NU looks to return to the Big Ten Championship Game for the third time in four seasons, its successes on the recruiting trail are racking up. Despite failing to rank higher than 47th nationally and 10th in the conference since 2015, three four-star recruits and top-tier three stars committed to the Cats for 2021.
By earning commitments in recruiting battleground states and building solid depth for the future, players are firmly believing in the future of NU football. It may be what lifts the Cats to new heights in the Fitzgerald era.
“(Northwestern) compete(s) for Big Ten titles and they’ve done that typically without the benefit of highly ranked recruiting classes,” Allen Trieu, a Midwest Football Recruiting Analyst for 247 Sports, said. “When you look at this group, there are some differences. That is because they are winning.”
During the winter of 2019-20, Caleb Tiernan had a guest at basketball practice.
A four-star offensive lineman with offers from nearly 20 programs including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, Tiernan was greeted by Cats offensive line coach Kurt Anderson outside the weight room at Detroit Country Day School.
Anderson stayed through Tiernan’s entire two-and-a-half hour practice and then spoke with him as he was walking out.
“It was like, ‘If (I) came to Northwestern, he would be able to make me an All-Big Ten tackle,’” Tiernan told The Daily in February. “That stuck with me for a pretty long time.”
Ahead of NU’s 2021 Pro Day, Fitzgerald said NU has the best player development staff in the country. There is proof to back up his claim.
Offensive lineman Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II came to Evanston as three-star recruits and left as first-round picks. Last season, former three-star Brandon Joseph earned the team’s first consensus All-American nod since 2000 and offensive tackle Peter Skoronski was mentored by Anderson into a 2020 All-Big Ten Second Team honoree as a freshman.
“You can be a five-star, and you can come in, and you can be great, but you’re not going to be that good without a great coach,” Tiernan said. “Just knowing that I’m going to a place that they turned a true freshman into a Freshman All-American; it’s good to know.”
The Cats signed fewer recruits than national title contenders such as Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State, but Trieu said this allows them to give athletes more “individualized attention.” This is also impacted, he said, by player retention and the development of under-the-radar athletes like Slater.
For three-star running back Anthony Tyus III, who chose NU over offers from schools like Indiana and Michigan State, his decision was impacted significantly by relationships with Fitzgerald, Ayeni and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
Tyus III’s father, who played linebacker at Central Michigan when Bajakian served as the school’s quarterbacks coach, told his son about Bajakian’s ample football knowledge and skill of creating offensive schemes. He told Tyus III Bajakian would be the person to talk to about his aspirations of making the National Football League.
“The coaches really, really seem genuine,” Tyus III told The Daily in June. “They don’t just offer everybody like every other school. If you get an offer from Northwestern, it means something really special.”
Growing up in Ohio, Najee Story’s dream was to play Big Ten football.
He would eventually become a three-star defensive end from Solon, Ohio, and the 12th-best player in the Buckeye State. Story received offers from eight Big Ten programs, including Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Minnesota.
When he received an offer from the Buckeyes early in his recruitment, he called it “a dream come true.”
“I grew up watching them,” Story told The Daily in February. “All my friends and family are fans of Ohio State. My sisters currently go to Ohio State. But I believe in my heart that Northwestern was the right decision for me.”
Story committed to the Cats on May 3, 2020, representing another recruiting victory for the purple-and-white in one of the nation’s most talent-rich states.
This cycle, NU continued its success in the Midwest. The Cats recruited three players from Ohio and four players from Michigan — including Tiernan and Tyus III.
NU also made an impact in the South, gaining commitments from Johnson II, receiver Jordan Mosley — a four-star wideout and the ninth-best player in Alabama — three-star wide receiver Jacob Gill and three-star tight end Lawson Albright from North Carolina.
The Cats also recruited from their own backyard, bringing in offensive lineman Jackson Carsello of Northbrook and linebacker Mac Uihlein of Lake Forest, the state’s third-ranked recruit.
Members of the class said the school’s academic reputation impacted their recruitment. And for players from the Midwest like Story, Tiernan and Tyus II, the short trip for their families to watch games at Ryan Field was also a plus.
Uihlein, for example, said he envisions lots of family tailgates in the near future.
“It’s pretty cool to spend the first 20-something years of your life within the distance of about 30 minutes,” Uihlein told The Daily in June. “It’s just a special place to be, being so close to home.”
2021 will be a year of transition for the Cats.
11 former NU football athletes are headed to NFL training camps, while players such as defensive lineman Eku Leota, running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson and wide receiver Kyric McGowan have transferred.
As Cats — both new and veteran — will work to earn roster spots, some position groups will be revamped this season. NU’s wide receiving corps lost its top three targets and Johnson II said he has been working hard as “nobody wants to sit on the bench.”
Tyus III is part of a young running back group led by sophomore running back Cam Porter. Uihlein joins a linebacking group with All-Big Ten Second Team honoree Chris Bergin but without Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who signed as undrafted free agents in the NFL.
“There’s a lot to uphold there,” Uihlein said. “As a linebacker, you’ve got to try and be the hardest working guy on the team. (For the) next couple years, I’m gonna do my best to fulfill that position.”
Whether they take the field in the season opener against Michigan State or a year from now, members of the 2021 class are optimistic they can help continue NU’s rise toward a Big Ten title and possibly more.
“Coach Fitz did a really good job of recruiting Northwestern’s needs,” Story said. “Once we get together, we all seem like hard workers and so we’ll buy into the culture that Northwestern has and be really successful.”
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