It’s been one heck of a spring for Northwestern recruiting.
The Wildcats received verbal commitments from 11 Class of 2018 prospects in March and April. As a result, their 13-member class is ranked eighth in the country by Rivals, right behind Clemson and Florida State and in front of marquee programs like USC, Oklahoma and Michigan.
That ranking is sure to drop as power programs add commitments – only one school (Miami) currently has more than Northwestern’s baker dozen pledges – but the foundation has been set for what may become the best class head coach Pat Fitzgerald has assembled during his 11-year tenure. The Wildcats are about two-thirds to their goal of somewhere between 18 and 20 commitments with almost 10 months to go until national signing day.
Things are going well in other areas of recruiting, as well.
Construction of Northwestern’s new $260 million practice palace on the lake front – the Fitz Mahal – is moving right along and scheduled to open in the spring of 2018. Wildcat coaches have been selling recruits on the facility for years using renderings; now they can show them steel beams and concrete. (You can see for yourself the progress on a live web cam.)
Last Friday, the Wildcats got more good news from the NCAA. The college sports governing body’s Division I Council approved rules changes that will significantly change the recruiting process – and in Northwestern’s favor. The new rules are expected to get approved to the NCAA Board of Directors next month.
Here’s a look at the NCAA’s changes and how they will impact the Wildcats:
Earlier official visits: This is the biggest rule change for Northwestern. Prospects will now be able to take official visits, paid for by the school, from April to June of their junior years, instead of only after Sept. 1 of their senior years as is the case now. The change is a big win for students without the financial resources to take multiple unofficial visits to faraway places. It’s also good for Northwestern, which recruits nationally and will be able to get players on campus sooner, rather than later. “If you’re a family of means financially, you can get around and do unofficial visits to different schools outside of (driving distance),” said Fitzgerald on signing day. “For young men from families that don’t have the means, they might not get a chance to go see a Northwestern if they’re in Texas or Georgia or Florida, or outside of the Midwest footprint...I think that’s going to give a whole other group of young men an opportunity to get around our players, which is going to be a huge, huge opportunity for us to sign even more young people.” It’s also a victory for the Big Ten, which pushed for the change, and a defeat for the SEC which opposed it. Expect the number of Northwestern official visitors to spike because of it, too. Northwestern hosted about two dozen official visitors for the 2017 recruiting cycle; Fitzgerald said that he might use the maximum 56 with the new measures in place.
December early signing period: This will add a new signing day in late December, in addition to the standard one on the first Wednesday in February. The new rule will pretty much end the traditional national signing day, at least for Northwestern. On signing day Fitzgerald said, “I think 18 of our 19 guys (in the Class of 2017) would sign the third week of December. (The only one who wouldn’t have signed early was Chee Anyanwu, who committed in late January and wasn’t part of the class in December.) He’s right. WildcatReport asked that same question of seven commits last year, and all seven responded affirmatively. One might ask why the NCAA would install a new signing day just two months before the existing one. The reason, most experts agree, is to ensure it comes after the wave of coach firings that comes right after the end of the season. With recruits committing earlier each year, and more and more of them enrolling in January, it’s a logical move, however small, in the right direction.
Liming satellite camps: In an effort to rein in Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan Football Camp World Tour, the NCAA has come to a bit of a compromise. Programs can hold camps for 10 days in June or July, but those camps must now be held on college campuses. That means that staffs from multiple schools may still work together to host a camp at a university near a recruiting hotbed, but Harbaugh can’t hold more than three dozen camps at high schools all over the country, as he did in 2016. For Northwestern, the Chicago Showcase Camp, which features coaches from MAC, Ivy League and FCS schools, can continue, and Wildcat coaches can also potentially take part in camps with other schools in places they recruit heavily – such as Houston, for example.
10th assistant coach: Beginning in 2018, schools will be able to add a 10th assistant coach who will be allowed to coach on the field and recruit off-campus. Some schools had been hiring “consultants” who could assist in game preparation but couldn't coach on the field in practice or games (Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian was one last year before taking over as offensive coordinator just prior to the national championship game); now those consultants can become full-fledged coaches. It will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald allocates this extra resource at Northwestern. Hiring a dedicated special teams coach may be the most likely outcome, but he could also hire a quarterbacks coach to help offensive coordinator Mick McCall, or add a second coach to an area that needs it, such as offensive line or wide receivers. It will also be an opportunity to introduce a new coach with new ideas to a staff that has been intact for more than six years.
Limiting the hiring of people associated with recruits: This will prohibit schools from hiring an “individual associated with a prospect” to a support staff position for two years before and after the prospect signs. The associated individual could be a high school coach, a parent, a 7-on-7 coach, etc. While Northwestern hasn’t engaged in this practice, it will stop other programs from trying to land Freddy Five-Star by hiring his high school running backs coach as a recruiting assistant or player development director. Programs will still be able to hire coaches associated with recruits to be on-field coaches, but it’s a lot less likely the exploitive hiring will continue if a college head coach has to trust that associated individual with coaching one of his position groups.