- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Signing day was suspense-free for Northwestern, and that's just how Pat Fitzgerald likes it.
Fitzgerald and his staff wrapped up the bulk of the Wildcats' class months ago and didn't have to sweat out the faxes on Wednesday. Northwestern is hoping this latest batch of recruits can add to the program's recent success, which included a 10-win campaign and first bowl win in 64 years this past season.
I caught up with Fitzgerald to ask about this year's recruiting effort:
What were your goals for this class?
Pat Fitzgerald: Once again, we want to continue to recruit speed, and I think if you look at the class, it's a very fast, very athletic group that we felt strongly about early. With our staff being together so long, we're a little ahead of the cycle. We had 17 of the 19 guys verbally committed before their senior year. Our first priority is speed, and our second is to solidify our physicality up front. I think we added some very talented guys that will add to some good classes in front of them and will add to the depth on both lines.
So do you think you'll see the impact of last season's success more in the following year?
PF: I think we've already seen the fruits of that labor. There's a lot of excitement. Basically in January, we're junior recruiting and seeing a bunch of juniors' high school coaches and talking to them about their prospects and getting on the phone with the kids. They all have watched us play and know we're a consistent winner and that we're knocking on the door to being Big Ten champions. The kids are excited about that. A bunch of juniors came up last fall to watch us play, so they've seen the plan for our new facility. And even as recently as the last 48 hours, I've had conversations with kids regarding the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field. So there's a lot of buzz, a lot of interest and a lot of positives going on.
Your highest-rated prospect is quarterback Matt Alviti. What do you like about him?
PF: Well, we've known about Matt for a number of years now. Matt's been on our campus throwing for years. I joked that I think I've known Matt longer than I've known my son, Brendan. It's kind of fitting that [Wednesday] was Brendan's birthday and we signed Matt that day. But he's a true dual-threat quarterback. He's a very dynamic athlete who can make all the throws and then some in our offense and run the ball the way we want to see our quarterback run athletically. At the end of the day, what sold me the most on Matt was watching the way he handled and managed the expectations of being the quarterback at [Park Ridge, Ill.] Maine South. That's a high-profile program here in Chicago and one with state championship expectations. He took that team over as a sophomore and handled that very well. He's a guy we've had circled for a number of years, and we feel very excited about him and the future of our quarterback position.
And Godwin ... well, I'm not even going to try to pronounce his last name ...
PF: Igwebuike. He's a talented, talented guy. He was a finalist for Mr. Ohio football and a guy who not only could be a running back but also could be a DB. Frankly, he has not made the decison on where he wants to play yet. But we evaluated him kind of like when we looked at Ibraheim Campbell. We felt like Ibraheim could be a tailback or a DB for us. I think we were right in our evaluation of him.
You have some other guys listed as athlete or running back. How much flexibility do you have with some of these guys and their positions?
PF: Well, Tommy Fuessel will be a wide receiver. Keith Watkins is going to play corner and we're excited about that. He's the one who gave us the idea of what he wanted to do. Jayme Taylor will be a superback for us. Xavier Menifield and Warren Miles-Long are running backs, and Godwin -- we'll see how that all progresses. Tyler Lancaster could play on the offensive or defensive line, so we'll see how that unfolds. The same thing with Marcus McShepard and Matt Harris. Both guys really run and are very athletic and talented on offense and defense and also in the return game. Speed and size were what we were looking for, and I believe we've added that to as deep of a roster as we've ever had.
You have a really solid nucleus from last year's team returning. So do you see this class contributing much next year or just adding depth?
PF: It's kind of the million dollar question, and it's hard for me to answer without being able to coach them. I tell all the guys in my home visit with them in December or January that they have to prepare today to start next year. If they don't prepare mentally and physically right now to get themselves ready to start, they're going to redshirt. I'm not going to waste a guy's year on covering kicks and being on kickoff return. I was that guy. I had to play, though. We had depth issues here, and I had to play before I was ready. As I look back, I wish I didn't have to do it. We have a five-step process we go through as a staff to evaluate whether or not we're going to play a kid. I'm just not going to waste a guy's year covering kicks.
You have three recruits each from Texas and California. How have you been able to build pipelines into those coveted areas?
PF: We're going to start and end our recruiting always here in Chicagoland. The backbone of this class, a quarter of our class, is from Chicagoland. We're excited about those guys from a standpoint of protecting our backyard. But when we leave Chicagoland, there's no secret to our roster. If you look at it over time, we're going to hit Ohio hard, Michigan hard, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. This year, we had great success in Ohio and Texas. If you add those states up, I think it's about half the class. We have a national brand with our education, and once kids get around our players -- who are our best ambassadors -- on official visits, it seems like the culture of who we are as a program sells itself.
How much more speed do you think you've added just in the past couple of years?
PF: I think we can run. It's been a priority in our recruiting classes really since I took over the program but even more so now that we're having really consistent success, winning bowl games against SEC teams, winning nonconference games against the SEC, the ACC, the Big East champion. There's no question that kids are excited about our program, and for us to take the next step we need to continue to get faster. We need to continue to get mentally and physically tougher so we play a physical brand of football. We're not there yet, but that's where we're headed.
You mentioned in your news conference about how many of these players were captains of their teams in high school. Is that something you specifically look for when recruiting?
PF: No question. I'll always talk to guys who weren't captains and I'll say, "Why weren't you a captain? If you want to be a Big Ten player and a Northwestern student-athlete, I'd fully expect that you're captain-level material. So what held you back from having that role?" I just think that, if you get guys who know how to lead and are leaders, they're going to lead in the college environment and make good choices off the field and do the right things in the classroom and spend the time it takes to be a champion. You can't be a champion in 20 hours. That's not going to happen. So hopefully we'll continue to foster that environment.
There must be a lot of competition when you name your captains, then.
PF: I'll give you an example. We only have about 80 guys on campus right now with graduation and whatnot, and I think we had over 60 apply for our leadership council. So I think that tells you where we're at as a program and where the leadership is. I hear coaches all the time who are frustrated that they don't have enough leaders. Well, if you don't recruit leaders, how do you think you're going to have them?
With the returning players, have you noticed any extra bounce in offseason workouts after the bowl win?
PF: This group is very focused and very disciplined. We're further along in that aspect than we've ever been. Obviously, if you look at what we have coming back and what we've recruited, we think this is the most talented locker room coming back we've had in a long, long time. They're really driving each other, and make no bones about it, the next step is winning a Big Ten championship. We've got to take those necessary steps to do that, and the only way to do it is by preparing in the seven months before we play the games. We're excited about it. The momentum is going in the right place, but we've got a big chunk of work to do.