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May 7, 2009

NU waits for first 2010 commitment

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald knows what it's like to be an expectant father, having had three children in the last five years, so waiting for the first commitment of his Class of 2010 is probably no big deal for him. But the Wildcats are clearly overdue in terms of delivering their first recruit.

Northwestern received its first verbal commitment during the first week of April in each of the last three years. For the Class of 2007, Colin Armstrong committed on April 6, 2006; for the 2008 class, Brian Mulroe got the ball rolling on the same date 12 months later; and last year, Evan Watkins became the first member of the Class of 2009 on April 5.

Northwestern fans looking at the calendar have no doubt noticed that Cinco de Mayo has passed and not a single player has pledged the Wildcats. But that's no reason to panic because there are reasons for the delay.

First of all, the three first commits listed above have one thing in common: they each hail from the Chicago area. Armstrong is from the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Mulroe Wilmette and Watkins Carol Stream. It makes sense that home-grown players would be the first to commit because they are more familiar with the Northwestern program than out-of-towners and visiting Evanston multiple times is not a problem.

This year, however, there are only two Chicagoland players on Northwestern's offer list. Kyle Prater is a four-star wide receiver from Hillside Proviso West that has gotten offers from Virginia in the East to USC in the West, and all points in between; and Corey Cooper, a safety from Maywood Proviso East, has already committed to Illinois.

That stands in stark contrast to last year, when much of the early recruiting news focused on the "Chicago Big Four" that Northwestern was pursuing. By the end of April of 2008, Watkins and Mike Trumpy had already committed, and Patrick Ward followed suit in August. The only one of the quartet that the Wildcats missed out on was Chris Watt, who wound up at Notre Dame.

The lack of Chicago-area targets is certainly not a strategy for Northwestern, for it would be extremely short-sighted and borderline suicidal for the Wildcats to turn their backs on the backyard that they've cultivated so intently under Fitzgerald. It's just a coincidence that most of their A-list targets in their need areas - quarterback, running back, defensive line and defensive back - are from outside the Land of Lincoln.

Another factor to consider is that Northwestern has fewer scholarships to give out this year. There are only 14 players on Northwestern's spring roster who will use up their final year of eligibility in 2009. You can figure that a couple more may opt not to come back for a fifth year, but even so, this will most likely be a class of 16 or so for the Wildcats.

Northwestern's last three classes numbered between 18 and 20. Fewer scholarship slots typically mean fewer offers, and fewer offers means it's less likely to get an early recruit.

The last reason for the lack of a first commitment is the most optimistic one: the Wildcats are simply in the picture for more top targets than they ever have been before.

Fitzgerald landed his first four-star player as a head coach last year when Ward committed, and the tackle from New Lenox Providence Catholic was the Wildcats' first four-star recruit since defensive end Loren Howard in 2001. This year, though, four-star prospects seem to be as plentiful as yellow spots on the Ryan Field turf.

There are currently eight four-star prospects on Northwestern's offer list in the Rivals database, and of those eight, six have already visited NU. The Wildcats usually do very well if they can get a player on campus, so those are encouraging signs.

Prater, for example, has been on campus multiple times, and defensive end Blake Lueders will be making his fourth unofficial visit to NU this weekend. The Wildcats have had all three of their four-star quarterback targets - Andrew Hendrix, Robert Bolden and Pete Thomas - in Evanston, as well as top running back Cameron Roberson.

While these are positive indicators of how much Fitzgerald has been able to upgrade recruiting over the last three years, these highly rated and highly recruited players are more likely to wait to make a decision for the simple fact that they have many other options to explore.

The Wildcats are by no means the only ones playing this waiting game, either. In the Big Ten, Indiana and Purdue have yet to land a commitment from a high school junior, and even Michigan State - which is coming off of a very strong recruiting year, ranking 17th in the nation - has snagged just one. (And that lone commitment is Max Bullough, a legacy whose father, uncle and grandfather played for the Spartans and whose first toy was probably a green-and-white football, if not a Sparty plush doll.)

Northwestern's coaches hope that having this many blue-chippers in the mix at this point in the process makes it much more likely that they will have a few of them in their stack when the last card is dealt next February.

Is it a gamble? Perhaps. But if they have to wait a little bit longer for that first commitment in order to land more of their prime targets later, then so be it. They're hope is that good things will come to those who wait.


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