When stars don't align

    Northwestern running back Treyvon Green took the handoff in the shotgun, slipped through the inside gap in his offensive line and turned on the jets, sprinting past Cal's secondary for a 33-yard touchdown. Wide receiver Kyle Prater, who has yet to reach the endzone in an NCAA game, watched from the sidelines.

    According to college football scouts, this wasn't supposed to happen. A few years ago, both players were high school standouts, although one stood out far more than the other. Prater was given a perfect five-star rating by Rivals.com, the popular Yahoo! Sports recruiting site. Green was given just two stars. But expectations don’t always match reality.

    Green, a Rowlett High School product out of Texas with only three NCAA Division I offers, scored Northwestern’s first points of the year, keeping the offense rolling despite an injury to All-American running back Venric Mark. Prater, a transfer from USC and the third-ranked high school player in the country back in 2010, didn’t hit the field the entire night. In a sport dominated by statistics, football recruiting throws numbers right out the window: Prater’s speed and physicality drew comparisons to current star NFL receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones, while Green’s 5-foot-10 frame looked undersized for college ball.

    “Early on, I wasn’t highly recruited. Northwestern gave me a chance,” Green says. “I still always walk around with a chip on my shoulder.”

    He’s not the only one. Green’s 2011 recruiting class produced starters Nick VanHoose, Christian Jones, Jack Konopka and Geoff Mogus, though none of the Wildcats' 17 commits from that year were ranked higher than three stars by Rivals. It's a consistent theme throughout the entire roster; even Northwestern's biggest names were unheralded prospects, from three-star Kain Colter to two-star Tyler Scott. Mark didn't even crack the top 100 rankings in his state. Only a handful of players earn perfect five-star designations, but almost 300 are given four stars. The others are given an average three stars, an underwhelming two stars or just one star, meaning the player is unranked.

    But more highly-touted prospects are paying attention to Northwestern’s program. The Wildcats’ 2013 recruiting class featured four-star dual-threat quarterback Matt Alviti, a redshirt this season, and as of now the 2014 class boasts three four-star recruits. At one point in May, Rivals ranked the 2014 class 15th best in the country.

    “A lot of people have started noticing what Northwestern is doing,” says Ben Oxley, who committed to the ‘Cats in April. Oxley, an offensive tackle from Avon Lake, Ohio, began “buying into what Pat Fitzgerald was saying” about Northwestern’s program and culture after watching the Wildcats end a 64-year bowl drought in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.

    Much like a student choosing a college, football recruits are sold not only a school’s compatibility with their talents, but also where they feel most comfortable. Fred Wyatt, a defensive lineman who pledged to the Wildcats in May, says that Northwestern ditches many of the platitudes that come with recruiting—form letters, corny videos and Pho- toshopped flyers—in favor of a more individualized approach.

    “They take the time to get to know you as a player and as a person. They get to know your family, and they also want you to get to know the program and get on campus,” Wyatt says. “They don’t send a whole lot of mail, which is nice. What they send is real personal, handwritten stuff. They like to talk to you as much as possible.”

    Those persistent recruiting efforts have pieced together a lauded class of 2014, but hype from recruiting websites won’t mean anything once the players arrive at practice. Four of Northwestern’s most recent alumni to reach pro football—Brian Arnfelt, Jeremy Ebert, Brian Peters and Drake Dunsmore—were two-star recruits before coming to Evanston. While higher-ranked recruits could produce even more college success than previous standouts, they could also foster unreasonable expectations.

    Fans of a program get understandably excited about recruiting triumphs. No team can remain successful without an influx of new talent. Every school needs to constantly reload its arsenal after players graduate, transfer or head for the NFL draft. If nothing else, recruits represent an unlimited ceiling, a staggering potential that leaves those tracking the recruiting process dreaming about how good these new players could be.

    Like everything in sports, recruits don’t always turn out as expected. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was a three-star recruit for Texas A&M in 2011, while five-star receiver George Farmer has just five career receptions in two years at USC. He’s missing the entire current season with ligament tears in his left knee.

    This unpredictability continues at Northwestern. Since Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach in 2006, the school has attracted four four-star recruits (not including the class of 2014) and one five-star transfer, Prater. Of those five, only Patrick Ward, an offensive tackle who graduated in June, has started a game for the Wildcats. And in Fitz’s first recruiting class, four of the five two-stars eventually became regular starters; of the 39 two-stars that have arrived with Fitzgerald at the helm, 18 developed into regular starters. That gives two-star recruits in the Fitzgerald era a 46 percent shot at starting, compared to a 20 percent likelihood for four and five-stars (though the latter is a much smaller sample size).

    But beyond the rankings lies a group of young football players who can impress as much off the field as they can on it. If there’s something to celebrate about this new class, it’s the players’ enthusiasm for the future of Northwestern’s football program, which can’t be measured in stars.

    The 2014 recruiting class began in December with a commitment from Jordan Thomas, one of the top-ranked defensive backs in Texas. Three months later, four-star quarterback and Illinois native Clayton Thorson joined, spurring a sequence of nine more impressive commitments in April and May. The Wildcats had 10 newcomers locked down before Memorial Day. At this point last year, the 2013 class had only two.

    More compelling is the list of schools that Northwestern’s commits were passing on. Running back Auston Anderson declined offers from Texas, Arkansas, Stanford and UCLA, for instance. But Northwestern isn’t out-state schooling the state schools; it’s recruiting in its own nuanced way, and it’s finding players that fit the offensive and defensive schemes without overvaluing star rankings. The Wildcats aren’t stealing recruits, they’re earning them.

    “Two stars, five stars, zero stars, six stars, seven stars, I couldn’t give a rat’s tail about that stuff,” says Mick McCall, Northwestern’s offensive coordinator. “Our entire program doesn’t care about that. It’s about getting guys that fit our program. We know what we’re evaluating: Can he play in our system?”

    McCall and Northwestern’s recruiting coordinators seem to think the 2014 class can play in their system, but we may not see them on the field for a while. Perhaps the biggest hurdle between a good high school recruit becoming a good college football player is the grind of redshirting, toiling away on the scout team and spending Saturdays on the sidelines. Only four members of the 2012 recruiting class saw playing time as true freshmen last season.

    “When you come out of high school, you’re a young man at best. We get a lot of good young men coming into our program,” McCall says. “Then all of a sudden, they’re trying to get in and get a rep—a single rep, if they can. They’re going to sit, and most of them haven’t sat once their entire lives. They don’t know what that’s like. We teach them how to grind through the tough times.”

    Fred Wyatt says his class has experience riding the bench. Everyone’s been at the bottom of the totem pole at some point, he says. NU’s recruiting class of 2014 will leave decorated high school careers for an offseason of learning the playbook, watching film and hitting the weight room. But above all else, Northwestern’s “Wildcat Way” attracts high-character players who are willing to put in the necessary work.

    “If coaches think I’m ready to play my freshman year, I’ll go in and work my butt off. If not, I’ll be playing my butt off in practice,” Ben Oxley says. “I’m not concerned about playing. I’m concerned about my team getting the win. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true.”

    It starts in the weight room, Green says, but much of the first-year progression comes from trusting “the brains they have upstairs.”

    The first signs of devalued star rankings will come next fall, when a select few freshmen will earn reps based on position need. Four-star quarterback Thorson is bound to redshirt because either Alviti or Trevor Siemian will start, and both Oxley and Wyatt are long-shots to play right away with NU’s crowded offensive and defensive lines. Anderson, meanwhile, joins a backfield already crowded by Green, Stephen Buckley and Venric Mark, who will likely return for a fifth year. Then come position changes, which many members of the new class will face from the beginning. Oxley could see a shift to defensive tackle, and Thorson may be moved to wide receiver. A year from now, Rivals’ scouting reports will be woefully out of date.

    Years down the road, we won’t remember the players of the class of 2014 as the one that chose Northwestern over bigger, more established programs. We also won’t remember those players for their star rankings. We’ll remember them for their hustle. McCall says he’s oblivious to rankings, but clearly the Wildcats don’t recruit players with anything less than five-star work ethics.

    Editor's note: The online version of this story has been updated to reflect the fact that Northwestern pulled its offer to four-star prospect Dareian Watkins on Nov. 19. 


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