Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his football recruiting staff celebrated the signing of 17 high school seniors to letters of intent Wednesday, the first day they could sign.
The class is arguably one of the most talented and highly regarded in Northwestern football’s history, with 16 players earning three stars, according to Rivals.com. It is balanced, with nine signees on offense and eight on defense, and highlights key areas of need. After only signing one wide receiver last year, Fitzgerald responded with four in this class along with three defensive backs to fill the void of graduating seniors.
Fitzgerald’s recruiting has shifted into a national event as the 17 recruits hailed from ten different states, with just one coming from Illinois. The ‘Cats signed three players from Ohio and Florida and two from Michigan, California and Texas as recruiting ties become established in talent-rich states. Northwestern’s success in the last couple of years has certainly helped its national recruiting efforts.
“I think young men want to play for a winner and 17 wins over the last two seasons I think proves that we’re working at becoming a consistent winner,” Fitzgerald said. “Having three Big Ten Championships since 1995 shows that we can compete at the highest level here.”
There is no one star in the class, mostly because of the overall talent level. Wide receiver Tony Jones, who hails from Michigan, was arguably the most sought after and could develop into a star. Jones sported offers from six other Big Ten schools, and national programs such as Stanford, Missouri, Cincinnati and Mississippi. He will join speedster Venric Mark, who is rumored to have a 4.4 40 time, polished receiver Rashad Lawrence and equally talented Jimmy Hall in the revamped wide receiving corps.
After not signing a single quarterback last year, Fitzgerald landed two talented signal callers who have different skill sets, but share their ability to lead in the locker room. Kain Colter, an original Stanford commit who contributed at running back and receiver as well during his senior year, and Trevor Siemian, who threw his passes to Lawrence in high school, could be starters down the road. What Colter lacks in height, at only six feet, he makes up in heart.
“He’s got a great personality, we’re looking at young men that everyone on their football team kind of gravitates towards,” Fitzgerald said. “When he walks in the huddle, he’s going to make the other ten guys around him that much better.”
They will be handing the ball off to Adonis Smith, who was named the top running back in northern California by multiple organizations. After amassing more than 1,800 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns last season, Smith looks to fill a real void on the ‘Cats attack.
Perhaps the most highly touted part of this class, though, is the offensive line. Paul Jorgensen, a 6 foot 6 inch offensive tackle, has the potential to develop into an absolute beast and earned a spot on the Detroit Free Press Dream Team. Brandon Vitabile, a pure center at 6 foot 3 inches and 295 pounds, was the sixth best center nationally according to Rivals.com and a first-team all-state selection in talent-rich New Jersey.
Ever the defensive-minded coach, though, Fitzgerald made sure to grab gems on the other side of the ball as well. The linebackers look to be the beasts of the group, led by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Ariguzo, who had the speed to play safety in high school on a beastly 6 foot 3, 215 pound frame, was ranked the 90th best player in the Midwest Region by SuperPrep. Ellis, a smaller but faster hard-nosed player from Louisiana, was named the third-best linebacker in the state by Rivals.com on his way to being named first-team all-state.
Perhaps the most pressing need for the ‘Cats next year will be defensive back after the graduation of Sherrick McManis, Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith. C.J. Bryant, Daniel Jones and Ibraheim Campbell look like they can fit the bill and make an immediate impact. Bryant and Jones are very fast corners with a lot of upside, while Campbell won almost every accolade in Pennsylvania as both a defensive back and running back. He was named to the all-state team as a running back and is one of 26 players on the Philadelphia Daily News’ All-Decade Team as a defensive back.
The last three studs in the class will play on the defensive line. Chance Carter, who lives in Evanston, California’s Sean McEvilly and Texas’ Will Hampton will hope to plug holes for the next four or five years. Carter may be the most intriguing prospect of the bunch, as he was a U.S. Army All-American Game participant and used to be a basketball star.
“I see a tremendous upside, a young man that’s a dynamic athlete and one of the top-rated under-16 basketball players in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “If he grows into his size 18 feet, look out.”
The best part of this class according to Fitzgerald, though, is that it sports 13 team captains and a combined GPA of 3.5.
“A great fit academically, about a 3.5 GPA across the board is an average of 17 players. If not the highest GPA of a signing class in the country, it’s going to be up near the top.”