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    BLOG: Recruiting, A Year-Round Occupation

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    * This Wednesday is a day of hope, a day of optimism, a day of superlatives and hyperbole, of exaggerated expectations and prodigal promises. It is, officially, football's National Letter of Intent signing day, that day when every recruit is a human highlight film capable of turning some lucky program around. That, in any case, is how it appears on the blogosphere and over the airwaves of hyperventilating TV networks. But, in reality, it is merely this:

    WATCH: Video Highlights of All 21 Signees

    Official Signing Day Announcement

    "This day," says 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald, "is a ticket to a bigger and greater challenge for all these young people (who signed with his program). Academically, socially and obviously athletically, to play Big Ten football."

    * Fitzgerald, to (it says here) his credit, barely contains his distaste for those services that slap stars on recruits and rank each school's class. So it was no surprise that, when informed his was rated fifth-best in the Big Ten, he smiled and said, "Wow. It's awesome. It's great. We went to the Rose Bowl with the worst recruiting class in the Big Ten."

    * The curious among you, naturally enough, want to know if there are any in this 'Cat class who will be contributing come fall. But here is how it works with Fitzgerald, who was asked just that question. "When I sit in their living room, I say a lot. But one of the main things I talk to them about is they have to prepare now to come in to compete to start," he said, ever the realist. "If they don't prepare that way, I guarantee them I will redshirt them. It's pretty simple. It's on them. That's the key ingredient. We're going to give them a plan, we're going to give them a set of expectations, but they're 17 and 18-year old young men in the second semester of their senior year of high school. That was a good time. At least in my life it was. Hopefully they're mature enough to prepare mentally and physically to prepare to compete to start. If they don't prepare that way, they'll be lost, they'll be way behind and no matter what our experts say, they won't play, they'll redshirt. It's really pretty simple."

    * One of those who could well play is Malin Jones, a 6-foot, 205-pound running back out of Joliet Catholic. He, for the record, averaged nine yards per carry in high school and scored 57 touchdowns; was an all-state selection and rated by one service as the fifth-best big back in the country; and was the first member of this class to commit to the 'Cats. "It shows how overrated this recruiting process is." Fitzgerald said, thinking of that last fact. "He and his family came up, we sat down a couple of times, we sat down and talked about his fit academically, his fit socially, got him around the players, and then we talked about football.

    "Instead of having the process take advantage of the family, they took advantage of the process, found what they were looking for and ended it. Unlike a lot of families that, well, maybe the grass is greener over here, maybe the grass is greener over there, and they shuttle their kids all over the country. All you're doing is confusing a 17-year old boy. Everybody's got nice stuff. No one walks you in where the rats and the garbage are. So they had a very specific plan, they had specific things they were looking for in my humble opinion, and they found it here and wrapped their arms around it 15 months ago. I would love to say other schools didn't reach out to him. But he never wavered."

    * Jones did indeed commit 15 months ago and, though there is no hard evidence to support the theory, that certainly did not hurt the 'Cats when it came to other recruits. "You're looking at one of the more high-profile players in the Chicagoland area," explained Matt MacPherson, NU's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach. "When that happens, I think it opens the eyes and opens the doors of other players. Obviously (he means) those in Chicagoland because they already knew about him. But also the eyes of players around the country that had maybe went to Junior Days with Malin, that had been in all-star games with Malin, that had been in combines with him, and know and see that he's a good player, a very good player. I think maybe that put a little bit more of a spotlight on Northwestern."

    Does a commitment like that, for lack of a better work, legitimize Northwestern for other recruits?

    "Maybe in some outside the circle, yeah, I would say there's some truth to that," said MacPherson. "I think those who know us and know our program don't need it to be legitimized. For some other people who maybe don't have as much knowledge about our school and about our program, yes."

    * By the way: When asked about Jones' running style, Fitzgerald simply said, "Scoring touchdowns." When asked the same, MacPherson said, "When you watch him on film, he's a physical kid. He's going to end up being a 210-plus pound running back. You watch him, he uses his off arm, his stiff arm very well. He has enough speed to run away from people, guys who are smaller than him. I think he has the ability to be an every-down back for us."

    * One other prospect who intrigues is Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 6-foot-3, 217-pounder who played defensive end in high school but is projected here to play outside linebacker. He was recruited by (among others) Alabama and Stanford and Notre Dame, but here is the fact that most fascinates. He has played football for only three years. "Obviously a very dynamic athlete that has had only a few years of football," Fitzgerald said of him. "That shows where he is now, but more importantly where his ceiling is, that's the great unknown, that's the exciting aspect. He's going to grow and develop and get better. . . His role? We're going to start him at linebacker and we always see where things go as guys move forward. So we'll start him at linebacker and see how it goes."

    * Fitzgerald, as he did in that statement, often references a player's athleticism, and that prompted us to scan the biographies of this class. Odenigbo ran track and, despite his size, anchored his high school to a third place finish in the 4X200 relay at the state championships in Ohio. Jones ran track for a year and, one year, played center on the basketball team. Adam DePietro, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound offensive lineman, won two letters in track, two in swimming and one in basketball. Joseph Jones, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound safety out of Plano, was the state champ in the 110-meter hurdles and a three-year letterman in basketball. Greg Kuhar, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound offensive lineman from St. Edwards outside Cleveland, wrestled for four years and finished his career ranked second-best in the country at 285 pounds.

    There were more multi-sport stars on that recruiting roster, which led to the obvious question. "I love recruiting well-rounded athletes. Multi-sports kids can do multiple things," said Fitzgerald. "You look at a kid that, let's say he plays basketball and baseball, in basketball he's a point guard and has incredible quickness and unbelievable ball control, you could see where that helps being a running back or a wide receiver or a DB. A kid who plays centerfield for the baseball team can judge the ball, so now maybe he can be a punt returner or kick returner. So, yeah, we really like to recruit well-rounded kids."

    "I don't think we ever go into a recruiting year saying, 'Let's find two, three-sport guys," MacPherson later added. "But I think, as you look at building on your athleticism, you naturally go down that path."

    *As for the nuts and bolts: There are 21 members in this recruiting class and one of them is a long snapper, Chris Fitzgerald. . . It also includes four offensive linemen and four defensive backs, three defensive linemen and three linebackers, two wide receivers and two running backs and two superbacks. . . Sixteen of them were captains, two of them played for state champions and six of them played for teams that lost in their state's title game. Combined, the teams of those 21 players won 77 percent of their games in their senior season . . Also joining the team, in case you missed the news that broke last Saturday, is 6-foot-5, 215-pound wide receiver Kyle Prater, who starred for Proviso West in 2009. He redshirted the next year at USC and then, after seeing limited duty last year due to injury, decided to transfer back closer to home. He is expected to enroll in school for the spring semester and the 'Cats are seeking a waiver from the NCAA that would let him play in the fall. When asked details of that request and just when a ruling might come down, Fitzgerald politely declined comment.

    * Note the number of captains and the high winning percentage. Know too that many of those 21 earned academic honors and that Fitzgerald, when talking of them, noted that they were goods fit for his program. This is why, on Wednesday, he was asked the importance of a player's intangibles, which led him to reveal this. When a recruiter returns from seeing a player, he fills in an athletic evaluation form, flips the sheet of paper over and then fills in what Fitzgerald called "Wildcat Value and Character Evaluation." That second part, he then said, is what he reads first.

    "Stacey (his wife) and I have been together for 20-plus years. She can watch a good football player on tape, that's not hard," he finally explained. "We want them to fit our program prior to us thinking whether they're good enough on tape. And now, with social media, kids are not very bright sometimes. They'll put things on Twitter, or put things on Facebook, and you'll just really question what the heck they're thinking. The awareness level, in this generation, sometimes I question. I really question what they're thinking and why they think it's appropriate to put some of those things out there.

    "So a lot of times I'll challenge parents when we first get to know them, tell me how you're parenting your child, tell me about what you're allowing them to do and what the expectations are in your home? They've been raised 17 years one way, but now I'm held accountable, our staff, our program, our university's held accountable for their actions not some of the time, but all of the time. So if we don't bring the right fit, that's a bigger problem than whether or not they can run, throw, catch, tackle or block."

    * But, naturally enough, the curious most want to know if this class fills the needs of his team. "I think our team needs to win. That's our need," said Fitzgerald, the realist once again. "So all these individual aspects grow into a bigger puzzle called team. We need to play better team football, we need to execute better as a team, we need to coach better as a team, we need to win more football games and compete for championships. That's what I expect to have happen for us in the future and that's what we're working toward every day."

    * Matt MacPherson, the recruiting coordinator, got to his office at 5:45 Wednesday morning and did not pop open a champagne bottle to celebrate his signing successes. He instead talked to coaches of players the 'Cats hope to corral next January, and reached out to some of those players themselves on Facebook. "Recruiting is never over," he would explain some six hours later. "There is no start date and no end date."

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