Identifying Future Northwestern Mega-Recruits Through the Magic of Statistics

It’s the middle of January.  

Should we write about the ongoing implosion of a once-promising basketball season?

Should we write about Clayton Thorson’s ACL?

Should we write about an NU football team with 27 wins in three years not being ranked in either ESPN or Sports Illustrated’s way-too-early 2018 polls?

Of course not!  

Let’s write a long-as-heck article about football recruiting.
(Check out our latest podcast where we discuss this article in detail)

Northwestern football fans know that NU recruiting has been on a steady upward trend for the past decade.  A program that once recruited as many 2 star players as 3 stars now expects to bring in 3 star talent or better.  This includes marquee 3 star players like Godwin Igwebuike, Jeremy Larkin, and Ernest Brown who had other significant Power-5 offers and were even rated as 4 star talents by some services.

But today, we’re going to look at the players who, everyone agrees, define a class as special on signing day:  Consensus 4 star and 5 star talents.  If Northwestern signs a player like this, that player immediately becomes the bellwether, rightly or wrongly, of the class.  If a class includes more than one such player, that class immediately vaults up to or near the best classes the Wildcats have ever pulled in.

Many of the 4 star names NU has reeled in immediately jump to mind:  

Justin Jackson

Clayton Thorson

Then there are the players who weren’t quite able to turn a marquee rating into on-field success:  

Greg Kuhar

We even had a 4 star signee who waited until the 11th-hour to help lead the ‘Cats to a bowl victory:

Matt Alviti

What these players have in common is that they were all massive gets who defined Northwestern as a school that could fish in the deep water of big-time recruiting.

Admit it, though:  What do you really know about Northwestern recruiting as it pertains to 4 and 5 star players?  How many of these top players does Northwestern actually offer scholarships to?  How many of them actually sign with the ‘Cats?  How many “big fish” get away, and who is Northwestern losing these players to?  Most importantly, what is the profile of a big-time recruit who is likely to sign with Northwestern?

Fear not!  Your friends the West Lot Pirates have crunched the numbers, and we’re here to discuss the stats and what they mean.

The following data was compiled using Rivals.com’s recruiting database.  That period covers about 15 years of Northwestern recruiting as it pertains to 4 star and 5 star players.  Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST, AN IMPORTANT NOTE:  

Information released last year revealed that Northwestern offers the second-fewest scholarships in the nation.  Only Stanford offers fewer players.  The Wildcats are VERY selective when it comes to recruiting, based on the academic standards of the school and the nature of the program itself.  We can thus assume, pretty safely, that if Northwestern offers a scholarship to a football player, Northwestern is actively and seriously recruiting that player.

 

PART 1:

HOW MANY 4-STAR AND 5-STAR RECRUITS HAS NORTHWESTERN OFFERED, AND WHERE HAVE THOSE RECRUITS ENDED UP?

According to the Rivals database, NU has offered 297 4 and 5 star players since 2003.

Below is a breakdown of the colleges those recruits ultimately signed with.  (Only colleges who signed at least 3 players from the list are included here.)

  • Notre Dame 32
  • Stanford 24
  • Michigan 23
  • Penn State 21
  • Ohio State 17
  • Northwestern 11
  • USC 10
  • Wisconsin 9
  • Iowa 7
  • Oklahoma 7
  • Texas A&M 7
  • Cal 6
  • Florida 6
  • Texas 6
  • Michigan State 5
  • Oregon 5
  • Tennessee 5
  • UCLA 5
  • Auburn 4
  • Illinois 4
  • North Carolina 4
  • Nebraska 4
  • Rutgers 4
  • Baylor 3
  • Clemson 3
  • Duke 3
  • Georgia 3
  • LSU 3
  • Maryland 3
  • Pitt 3
  • Washington 3

 

We’re going to be focusing on the top of this list, so let’s reproduce it here:

  • Notre Dame 32
  • Stanford 24
  • Michigan 23
  • Penn State 21
  • Ohio State 17
  • Northwestern 11

PART 2:  

MICHIGAN, PENN STATE, AND OHIO STATE

As far as being a source for predictive or useful analysis, the 61 players Northwestern targeted who signed with these three schools don’t mean a heck of a lot.  This is because, while we can assume these players all had the academic credentials to fit in as a Northwestern football, player, we have no evidence that these credentials were accompanied by a desire to attend an academically prestigious school.  Michigan, OSU, and Penn State are the traditional powers of the Big Ten.  They are naturally going to draw top talent, especially in the midwest.  A player MIGHT be enticed by Michigan’s academics, but more likely he’s enticed by Big Blue Nation.  It’s most likely that these 61 players simply said, “sorry Northwestern, I’m going to play for the Top Dog.”  

PART 3:

NOTRE DAME AND STANFORD

This is where things get interesting.  

The ND and Stanford numbers above may have jumped out at you, particularly the Notre Dame stats.  Far more 4 and 5-star recruits who Northwestern has offered scholarships to have ended up at Notre Dame than any other school.

So, is this a regional thing?  I.E., we are competing against Stanford for California recruits, and competing against Notre Dame for Midwest recruits?

Not exactly.  The intricacies of the ND/NU AND Stanford/NU relationships are key to defining the kind of 4 or 5 star player who might end up at Northwestern.

Consider this:  Northwestern has won or lost 4/5 star recruiting battles to Notre Dame in 13 different states.  Northwestern has won or lost recruits against Stanford in 14 different states.

In other words, for recruits who ultimately sign with Stanford, Notre Dame or Northwestern, this is not a regional choice.  These players are picking these schools based on criteria–usually related to academic and program standards–that transcend geography.

This fact is born out by the following stat:  Of the 11 4-star players Northwestern has signed in the past 15 years, 7 also held offers from Notre Dame, Stanford, or both.  Of the remaining four players, three were from Illinois, and 4th, Greg Kuhar, received 4-star status after he had already signed with Northwestern.

These numbers make sense:  A player who ultimately signs with Northwestern is likely to have been tempted by Stanford and Notre Dame’s academic reputations.  We can easily focus on this by looking at a 4-star player the Wildcats signed who held offers from both Stanford AND Notre Dame:

Patrick Ward

Patrick Ward is something of a unicorn.  If Illinois produced 10 Patrick Wards a year instead of one a decade, Northwestern football would be much better.  This because, in addition to being an extremely talented high school football player, Ward is really, really, really smart.  He reportedly achieved a nearly perfect score on his ACT exam.  Ward would likely have been targeting elite academic universities even if he had never set foot on a football field.  What’s more–*NOTRE DAME DIG ALERT*–Ward fell into the narrow category of student for whom there is a significant academic distinction between Stanford/Northwestern and Notre Dame.  He didn’t want to go all the way out to California, and his Catholic High School wasn’t enough to sway him from Northwestern to Notre Dame.  The ‘Cats were his perfect fit.

The Patrick Ward example is a good jumping off point for examining Northwestern vs. Notre Dame recruiting stats as a whole:

PART 4:

NORTHWESTERN VS NOTRE DAME

When Northwestern and Notre Dame both offered a 4/5 star player, and that player ultimately chose either Northwestern or Notre Dame, the Cats went 6/38.  In other words, 6 recruits picked Northwestern, and 32 picked Notre Dame.  

These numbers don’t sounds great, but this is, after all, Notre Dame that we’re talking about.  More important, however, is what we learn when we break things down regionally.  

As a Northwestern fan, you might cringe any time you see that a local recruit Northwestern is targeting also holds a Notre Dame offer.  But this isn’t an accurate way to view the NU/ND recruiting battle:

The farther we get from the Midwest, the larger Notre Dame’s advantage over Northwestern grows.  For example, of the 6 California recruits who chose either Northwestern or Notre Dame when offered by both, all 6 selected the Fighting Irish.  

Once we get into the Midwest, things improve.  Consider the following percentages:

A 4/5 star player offered by both NU and ND who picks one or the other picks Northwestern

  • Nationally:  16% of the time
  • In the Midwest:  20% of the time
  • In Illinois:  33% of the time

This last number is important because, in the past 15 years, Northwestern has successfully landed Illinois 4/5 star recruits it has offered scholarships to 20% of the time.  In other words, Notre Dame is a positive indicator:  A player who seriously considers the two schools is more likely to sign with Northwestern than a player who does not.  

There is a final, important point to consider relative to Notre Dame:  Whether or not a prospective recruit attends a Catholic High School.  

Patrick Ward (Providence Catholic) is truly a unicorn here, because, when Notre Dame and Northwestern go head-to-head for a recruit from a Catholic school, it outweighs any benefit Northwestern might enjoy within the state of Illinois.  Regionally and Nationally, Notre Dame is catnip for Catholic school kids.  This is an important segue into what is, possibly, the strongest indicator of Northwestern’s chances to land a top recruit:

  • When both Northwestern and Notre Dame offer a non-Indiana based Midwest recruit, AND this recruit chooses either Northwestern or Notre Dame, AND this recruit attends a public, non-Catholic high school, the recruit picks Northwestern 27% of the time.

That’s a pretty good number!  The Midwest is a big place!  

If you don’t already have a particular player in mind when considering the above statistic, you should.  He’s the only other player besides Ward to select Northwestern over both Notre Dame and Stanford (in a hat dance, no less), and he’s arguably the biggest recruit Northwestern has ever signed:

Ifeadi Odenigbo

It became very clear early on in the recruiting process that academics were very important in the Odenigbo household.  The Centreville, Ohio public school phenom narrowed his list to four schools, but quickly eliminated his home-state Buckeyes.  He wanted to stay close to home (Alabama was among the schools he turned down), but Northwestern’s academics and fit appealed to him more than Notre Dame’s (*see above ND Dig*).  Ultimately, the Cats were his choice.  Odenigbo established himself at Northwestern as a physical marvel, but also as cerebral and mercurial.  In other words, he’s tremendously gifted in both mind and body.  A born Wildcat.

The question, then, becomes not why we didn’t lose Odenigbo to Notre Dame, but why we didn’t lose him to his other final contender.

PART 5:

NORTHWESTERN VS STANFORD

 

Quite simply, when it comes to recruiting, Stanford cleans our clock.  And there is a very, very simple reason why.

Northwestern competes against Stanford nationally in recruiting more than any other school.  The two schools target the same kind of student athlete and the two schools offer less players than any other schools in the country.  It’s a real competition year-in and year-out, and Stanford dominates it.

In the past 15 years, there have been 27 cases in which a 4/5 star player was offered by Northwestern and Stanford and picked one school or the other.  In those cases, 3 players chose the Wildcats.  24 chose Stanford.

Why?  It’s obvious.  Take a look at the following breakdown of how Northwestern did against Stanford on a state-by-state basis:

  • California: 0/7
  • Texas: 0/4
  • Florida 0/3
  • Georgia: 0/2
  • Maryland:  0/2
  • Virginia: 0/1
  • North Carolina: 0/1
  • TOTAL: 0/20

What do these states have in common?  Warm, or at least mild, weather.  Warm state kids picking between NU and Stanford don’t want to brave Chicago winters when they could be in Palo Alto.  If Northwestern is recruiting a warm state 4/5 recruit, and Stanford shows up?  It’s the kiss of death.

But, to paraphrase Robert De Niro in Heat, there’s a flipside to this coin.  Take away the warm weather a recruit has grown up with, and you take away Stanford’s advantage.  In the Midwest in the past 15 years, 4 recruits have been offered by both Northwestern and Stanford and picked one school or the other.  Two of them–Ward and Odenigbo–chose the Cats.  

In the Northeast, the trend continues.  In the past 15 years, Northwestern and Stanford have gone toe-to-toe in New York and New Jersey for two major recruits.  Shane Skov chose Stanford.  Northwestern landed this guy.  

Garrett Dickerson

And yes, Garrett happened to have an older brother who was already playing for the Cats.  But do yourself a favor and take a look at Dickerson’s offer list.  He could have played literally anywhere he wanted!  Academics were a priority, and Northwestern won out.  

PART 6:  

PROJECTING POTENTIAL FUTURE NORTHWESTERN COMMITS

So, how can we spin all of this information forward to highlight potential future 4 and 5 star Northwestern recruits?  

First, let’s answer a question you might already be asking.  

We’ve talked about players with Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Stanford offers who actually choose to attend those three schools.  What percentage of these players actually choose to attend these schools, and what percentage attend any other school that has offered them a scholarship?

Over the past 15 years:

  • A player with both a Northwestern offer and a Notre Dame offer attended one of the two schools 29 percent of the time.  
  • A player with both a Northwestern offer and a Stanford offer attended one of the two schools 26 percent of the time.  

These numbers could obviously be massaged based on time period or region to either increase or decrease.  The main point, though, is there IS a strong correlation.  One out of every four recruits with a Notre Dame/Stanford offer and a Northwestern offer ends up with the Irish, Cardinal, or the Wildcats.  Remember, 27% of Midwest, non-Indiana, public school football players with ND/NU offers who DO pick one of the two schools pick the ‘Cats!

With this said, let’s break down the categories that should represent a 4/5 star recruit with a strong chance of Northwestern future.

CATEGORY 1:  

RECRUITS FROM ILLINOIS

This is the simplest category.  6 of the 11 4-star recruits Northwestern signed in the past 15 years were in-state recruits.  As mentioned above, 20% of the Illinois 4/5 recruits Northwestern has offered have committed to the Cats.  Recruits like this newly-minted Under Armour All-American:

Devin O'Rourke

In case you’re wondering, the 20% statistic has NOT improved as the Northwestern football program itself has improved.  The reason for this is that, in the old days, Northwestern didn’t really offer major in-state recruits–probably because we had little-to-any chance of landing them.  The 20% number mainly applies to players Northwestern has targeted in the past 7-8 years.

 

CATEGORY 2:  

MIDWEST PUBLIC SCHOOL RECRUITS WITH BOTH NOTRE DAME AND NORTHWESTERN OFFERS.

The Math isn’t exactly cut-and-dry, but an argument can be made that 1 out of every 4 players who fit this category will actually choose either Notre Dame or Northwestern.  There is a 27% chance THAT player will choose Northwestern.

 

CATEGORY 3:

MIDWEST OR NORTHEAST RECRUITS WITH BOTH STANFORD AND NORTHWESTERN OFFERS

There aren’t a lot or recruits who fit into this category, which is a shame, because 1 out of 4 of them will choose either the Cardinal of the ‘Cats.  50% of the time, this player picks Northwestern.

 

CATEGORY 4:

THE SWEET SPOT

This recruit rarely exists.  He is basically an amalgam of categories 1, 2, and 3.  The ideal 4/5 star NU recruit is from Illinois; also holds an ND offer, a Stanford offer, or both; does not attend a Catholic high school.  Think this guy: 

Parrker Westphal

Northwestern has somewhere between a 33% chance and a 50% chance of landing this player.

 

PART 7:  

LOOKING AT THE CLASS Of 2019

Thus far, Northwestern has offered 15 4/5 star recruits in the class of 2019.  Two of those recruits have already committed to other schools (neither was Notre Dame or Stanford).  That leaves 13 recruits.  

Right away, we can eliminate the warm-weather guys.  Not to throw shade at our coaching staff:  We respect the effort.  But Northwestern has only ever signed one warm-weather 4 star recruit, and that player, Loren Howard, eventually transferred back home to Arizona.  We haven’t signed a warm-weather 4 star guy in more than a decade.

Removing recruits from California, Arizona, and Florida leaves us with an even 10 recruits.  Let’s take a closer look at these recruits:

CATEGORY 4

Sadly, no sweet spot guys in this class.

CATEGORY 1

Trevor Keegan

Keegan holds neither a Notre Dame offer nor a Stanford offer.  Neither, however, did Devin O’Rourke.  Northwestern’s in-state profile has never been better.  Lord knows we could use a 4-star offensive lineman!  Here’s hoping our 20% chance of landing Keegan comes up roses!

CATEGORY 3

A single player falls into this category, but we’re going to save him for Category 2.

CATEGORY 2

Six players hold Notre Dame offers in addition to Northwestern offers.  However, Offensive lineman John Olmstead is (A) From New Jersey, and (B) Attends a Catholic high school.  Those are two massive advantages for the Irish over the Cats.

Similarly, 4-star ATH Isaiah Williams, the #1 player in the state of Missouri, also attends a Catholic high school.  It bears mentioning, however, that Northwestern has signed a 4-star player from Missouri before: 

Roderick Campbell

Campbell also held an offer from Notre Dame and attended a Catholic high school.

Still, the overall statistics give Notre Dame a big edge against NU for a player like Williams.

 

This leaves a group of four players who fit into

Category 2:

Zeke Correll

Correll holds a Notre Dame offer along with his NU offer. He also hails from a city, Cincinnati, that Northwestern has recruited well.

Quinn Carroll

This kid is a major recruit teetering on 5 star status.  He holds a slew of offers, but that group includes both Northwestern and Notre Dame.  

David Bell

We’ll throw Bell on the list as well, even though he’s more of a stretch, since he hails from Indiana.

Zach Harrison

Harrison is the most fascinating case to examine.  He plays Defensive End, attends a public high school, hails from Ohio, and fit into either Category 2 or Category 3, holding Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Stanford offers.

In other words, Harrison looks like a better version of Ifeadi Odenigbo.  Add to that the fact that Northwestern has been recruiting defensive linemen very successfully lately, and you can start trying to talk yourself into things like “A 5-Star recruit who lives 20 miles away from the Horseshoe is going to attend a college other than Ohio State”.  Yeah…that sounds like a stretch.

The sensible yet idealistic thing to do is take all 4 players in Category 2 as a group.  Stats indicate a likelihood that one of them will sign with Notre Dame/Northwestern.  If that player exists, there’s about a 1 in 4 chance that he becomes a Wildcat!

 

Well, this was a fun winter diversion!  Feel free to close your eyes and dream of a stacked Northwestern offensive line squaring off with a 5 star defensive lineman in practices out on the Lakefill!  

It’ll be fun to revisit all of this next December when we sign most of our 2019 class. Will the math bear out?  Or are there lies, damn lies…and Northwestern recruiting statistics?

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Posted on January 17, 2018, in Podcast. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It would be interesting to understand how college playing time works out. It would be great to claim that those that sign with NU actually on average start sooner and play more games. Not sure if it is true, but interesting if you could prove that 4/5 star recruits have a better chance of playing by coming to NU.

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