This above all else is what makes Northwestern such an intriguing option for Keith Watkins, a 2013 running back from Cincinnati (OH). For three years Watkins has thrived at Moeller high school under coach John Rodenberg, a man with the same sort of up-beat personality and charisma that has come to define coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"It was pretty weird, how similar they were," Watkins said, invoking the strong parallels between the two coaches. "They are both really intense about certain things, which I like. They also joke a lot, which is cool."
After whittling down his list to six schools last week in the lead up to a campus visit, Watkins vaulted NU into his top three, along with West Virginia and a tie between Iowa and Cincinnati. There are several reasons for this; First and foremost is coach Fitzgerald. Watkins described his bond with Fitzgerald as if the two had forged a lasting friendship based on mutual understandings of not only football but off-field concerns like family and academics.
Unlike other coaches he's encountered on the recruiting trail, Fitzgerald engaged with Watkins on a more personal level, a relationship promising long-term trust and accountability.
When asked about the highlight of his visit, Watkins immediately jumped to his 30-minute conversation with Fitzgerald.
"It was a great experience," he said. "I just got this great feeling talking to him, that he would always be there for me no matter what. He's that type of guy you can count on, and I felt that talking to him."
As a junior, Watkins posted 687 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while hauling in 24 passes for 168 yards and four touchdowns. That versatility—the ability to contribute in the running and passing games—is in large part why Watkins has shot up most prospect boards this year and is now 2013's No. 53-ranked running back, according to Scout. Com.
While Watkins provides a strong playmaking force for any backfield, he is willing to contribute as a defensive back depending on his landing spot. During his visit, he spoke with defensive backs coach Jerry Brown about playing cornerback for the Wildcats, an option he wholeheartedly embraces.
Still, it's hard to envision Watkins' unique skill set being limited to one position. With his straight-line speed and evasiveness in the open field, Watkins may end up contributing at multiple positions, including slot receiver and in the kicking game.
"Coach Brown was pretty straight with me about everything," Watkins said. "He talked about me playing cornerback. I'm cool with that."
Before making his way to Evanston, Watkins heard rumors that NU was a school with a lackluster athletic environment, that academics dominated campus life. After touring the facility and surveying the Wildcats' new Under Armour uniforms, he had credible evidence suggesting otherwise. Watkins enjoyed touring the facilities, weight room and, most of all, the lake.
"That was the coolest part about campus," he said. "It's awesome to have a private beach like that."
Fitzgerald's pitch resonated positively with Watkins, and it had a similar effect on his childhood friend, Jaleel Hytchye, who joined Watkins on the visit. Hytchye, a 2013 cornerback from La Salle (OH) high school, holds offers from NU, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Arizona State, among others.
Like Watkins, Hytchye is intrigued with the prospect of playing at a Big Ten school with academic prestige. He aspires to major in journalism and knows of NU's highly-revered Medill School.
While Hytchye was unavailable for this story, Watkins said NU ranks highly on his list of schools and that he enjoyed the visit--"When I talked to him the other day, he said he loved it," Wakins said. Both players plan to make their decisions before their senior seasons.
Watkins and Hytche have never agreed to a co-commitment package deal, but their mutual desires for strong academics at a Big Ten schools dovetails nicely for NU coaches hoping to secure their services.