The former, who committed to Northwestern on Monday despite fielding offers from West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan State and 17 other respectable schools, is the latest in the string of touted talents to choose the Cats over bigger names. Watkins, a four-star wide receiver from Galion, Ohio, received interest from just about every other Big Ten program.
The latter emphasizes the importance of academics, has a workhorse's mentality and gives Northwestern its most upside at wideout since Jeremy Ebert. The recruit made sense for 21 teams; the player for just one.
It's been a huge spring for the Wildcats, who have built a preliminary base for their best recruiting class ever. But far more important than the bragging rights over conference rivals, way beyond the salience of Northwestern being hurled into conversation with West Virginia is the simple fact that these recruits want to be Wildcats. Northwestern's not stealing players; it's earning them.
Watkins' monstrous athleticism coupled with his 3.25 high school GPA makes him a natural fit in purple. Solomon Vault's versatility in the slot is perfect for Mick McCall's offense, while Mike Hankwitz's physical defensive approach will make great use of Cameron Quiero. Pat Fitzgerald's call for more offensive line depth is answered by Ben Oxley and Tommy Doles, and the Wildcats' two-quarterback system could hypothetically roll right on with Clayton Thorson.
Northwestern isn't "outdoing" any of these schools for recruits. It didn't out-state school Nebraska for Vault or N.C. State for Thorson. Rather, right as the Cats begin to claw at national prominence, the program has found a distinct niche in the high school football talent pool: Get personnel that fits the system and get kids that love to play the game.
The passion to be here for these commits comes through, and it's way more exciting than beating a bigger school or landing a player with a sterling 40 time. Throw stars and state rankings right out the window. The Northwestern mantra is–at least for some recruits–just as appealing as anything the best teams in the Big Ten and in the country have to offer.
Down the road, nobody will know Dareian Watkins as the receiver Northwestern "stole" from Michigan State. Rather, people might just know him as Matt Alviti's favorite target, the receiver who made sense for an offense lacking a vertical element and for a program that rewards hard work in athletics as well as in academics.
And nobody will know this class of 2014–regardless of how many more members are added–as the class that finally began competing with big state schools. They'll remember it as the class that wanted to be here from the beginning.
Jordan Thomas committed to Northwestern right away in December of 2012, after receiving just an offer from Utah and making one campus visit. Thorson committed as early as March despite Alviti sitting in the class above him. This time last year, Northwestern had only two commitments in Alviti and Blake King. This year they have seven.
Despite everything hackneyed and cliche about the "Wildcat way," there's a whole lot of legitimacy to it. This class of 2014 wants to play for Northwestern, plain and simple.
Perhaps Northwestern comes up on the same recruiting board as a West Virginia these days. You still can't group the two together. The Cats are doing things their own way, and as that way translates to more 10-win seasons, recruits will continue to take notice.