The Northwest Daily | Football: How Northwestern’s 2021 recruiting class seeks to help the Wildcats reach new heights


Calvin Johnson II grew up watching Southeastern Conference football.

Throughout his life, the French Camp, Mississippi native has attended Mississippi State games, familiarizing himself with the SEC opponents of the Bulldogs, including Auburn.

So when-No. 14 Northwestern beat the Tigers in the 2021 Vrbo Citrus Bowl, Johnson II, a three-star athlete and Mississippi’s 20th best player in the 2021 recruiting class according to the 247 Sports Composite, knew the Wildcats were a winning program.

NU also provided what Johnson II was looking for: top football, great education and a family atmosphere.

“At the last Zoom meeting I had before I joined, (trainer Pat Fitzgerald) asked me what kept me from being a Northwestern Wildcat,” Johnson told the Daily in February. “And I just couldn’t think of an answer to that.”

He enlisted at NU on February 3, a member of what would become the nation’s 50th best recruiting class. Comprised of 16 players and ranked 11th in the Big Ten, the Cats’ 2021 class arrived in Evanston after the program’s best season since 1995.

As NU looks to return to the Big Ten Championship Game for the third time in four seasons, its success on the scouting track is mounting. Although they have failed to rank higher than 47th nationally and 10th in the conference since 2015, three top four-star and three-star rookies have committed to the Cats for 2021.

By gaining commitments in recruiting battlefield states and building solid depth for the future, players have a firm belief in the future of NU football. Perhaps this is what elevates cats to new heights in the Fitzgerald era.

“(Northwestern) is competing for the Big Ten titles and they have done so generally without the benefit of highly ranked recruiting classes,” said Allen Trieu, Midwestern soccer recruiting analyst for 247 Sports. “When you look at this group, there are some differences. It is because they are winning.

***

During the winter of 2019-2020, Caleb Tiernan had a guest at basketball practice.

A four-star offensive lineman with offers from nearly 20 programs including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, Tiernan was greeted by Cats offensive line coach Kurt Anderson outside the hall. bodybuilding from Detroit Country Day School.

Anderson stayed through Tiernan’s entire 2.5-hour practice, and then spoke with him as he exited.

“It was like, ‘If (I) came to Northwestern he would be able to land an All-Big Ten tackle for me,” Tiernan told The Daily in February. “It stuck with me long enough.”

Ahead of NU’s Pro Day 2021, Fitzgerald said NU has the best player development staff in the country. There is evidence to support his claim.

Offensive lineman Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II came to Evanston as three-star rookies and left as a first-round pick. Last season, former three-star Brandon Joseph won the team’s first All-American Consensus since 2000 and offensive tackle Peter Skoronski was mentored by Anderson in a 2020 All-Big Ten Second Team winner in as a recruit.

“You can be a five star, and you can come in, and you can be great, but you won’t be as good without a great coach,” Tiernan said. “I just know I’m going to a place where they’ve turned a real freshman into an All-American freshman; it’s good to know.”

The Cats have signed fewer rookies than national title contenders such as Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State, but Trieu said it allows them to give athletes “more individualized attention.” It’s also impacted, he said, by player retention and the development of under-the-radar athletes like Slater.

For three-star running back Anthony Tyus III, who chose NU over offerings from schools like Indiana and the State of Michigan, his decision was significantly affected by relationships with Fitzgerald, Ayeni and the offensive coordinator. Mike Bajakian.

Tyus III’s dad, who played linebacker at Central Michigan when Bajakian was the school’s quarterback coach, told his son about Bajakian’s vast football knowledge and ability to create plans. offensive. He said Tyus III Bajakian would be the one to talk about his aspirations to be in the National Football League.

“The coaches look really, really genuine,” Tyus III told The Daily in June. “They don’t just offer everyone like every other school. If you get an offer from Northwestern, it means something really special.

***

Growing up in Ohio, Najee Story’s dream was to play Big Ten football.

He would ultimately become a three-star defensive end for Solon, Ohio, and Buckeye State’s 12th best player. Story has received offers from eight Big Ten programs, including Michigan, Pennsylvania State, Ohio State, and Minnesota.

When he received an offer from the Buckeyes early in his recruiting, he called it a “dream come true.”

“I grew up watching them,” Story told The Daily in February. “All of my friends and family are Ohio State fans. My sisters are currently going to Ohio State. But I believe in my heart that Northwestern was the right decision for me.

Story committed to cats on May 3, 2020, representing yet another recruiting victory for purple and white in one of the nation’s most talented states.

This round, NU continued its success in the Midwest. The Cats have signed three players from Ohio and four players from Michigan, including Tiernan and Tyus III.

NU also made an impact in the South, securing commitments from Johnson II, wideout receiver Jordan Mosley – a four-star wideout and Alabama’s ninth-best player – three-star wide receiver Jacob Gill and three-star tight end Lawson. North Carolina Albright.

The Cats also recruited from their own backyard, bringing in offensive lineman Jackson Carsello of Northbrook and linebacker Mac Uihlein of Lake Forest, the state’s third rookie.

Class members said the school’s academic reputation had an impact on their recruitment. And for Midwestern players like Story, Tiernan, and Tyus II, their families’ short trip to watch the games at Ryan Field was a plus, too.

Uihlein, for example, said he plans to have many family hatches in the near future.

“It’s pretty cool to spend the first 20 years of your life being around 30 minutes away,” Uihlein told The Daily in June. “It’s just a special place to be, being so close to home.”

***

2021 will be a year of transition for the Cats.

11 former NU football athletes are heading to NFL training camps, while players such as defensive lineman Eku Leota, running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson and wide receiver Kyric McGowan have been transferred.

As the Cats – both new and veteran – will work to earn spots on the roster, some job groups will be revamped this season. NU’s vast receiving corps has lost its three main targets and Johnson II has said he is working hard because “nobody wants to sit on the bench.”

Tyus III is part of a group of young running backs led by second year running back Cam Porter. Uihlein joins a group of linebackers with All-Big Ten Second Team winner Chris Bergin, but without Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who signed as undrafted free agents in the NFL.

“There is a lot to defend there,” Uihlein said. “As a linebacker you have to try to be the hardest working guy on the team. (For the next) years, I will do my best to fill this position.

Whether they step onto the field in the opener against Michigan State or in a year, the members of the 2021 class are optimistic they can help continue NU’s ascent to a Big Ten title and possibly more.

“Coach Fitz did a really good job recruiting for Northwestern’s needs,” Story said. “Once we get together we all look like hard workers so we’re going to embrace the Northwestern culture and be really successful.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @ dschott328

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