Big Gains

Publisher Nick Medline picks his five biggest winners from the recent recruiting surge.

Adam Cushing

In the next few seasons, several teams will attempt to court Northwestern assistants. I think Mick McCall is strongly under respected, though many tend to disagree with me on that front. Another rising name is Adam Cushing, who's been at the heart of this incredible stretch of recruiting.

He's always been praised for his efforts on the trail. But in 2012, his unit exceeded expectations after losing Al Netter and Ben Burkett to graduation. Now, offensive linemen are flocking to the NU program. He developed a crucial relationship with Blake Hance that led to yet another exciting commitment. With the on-field results catching up to off-the-field success, you could argue he's one of the most invaluable members of this assistant staff.

Dareian Watkins

Everything about it.

Watkins chose Northwestern after an extended recruiting process. He chose Northwestern over several elite programs. He also projects to be an elite wide receiver.

And if you haven't already done so, read this Allen Trieu feature. It's difficult to stay neutral about his commitment; his story is that unbelievable.

Post-Mark Sadness

Venric Mark enters his senior season in 2013. Though he faces lofty expectations, the All-American is prepared for another excellent campaign. Regardless of how well he performs, though, the future is bright. He'll leave when the next crop of talented running backs arrives.

This includes Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson—two recent commits with different skillsets. Jackson grew impressed by NU from day one. They recognized his potential at running back, and no other school really had a chance. Anderson, meanwhile, chose NU over Texas. Because, really, why not? This team is frickin' great.

Jordan Thomas and his Foresight

Jordan Thomas gave his verbal in December—well before the usual commitment period. His brief recruitment reflected the very principles of NU recruiting. As with Blake Hance, the Wildcats zoned in on Thomas by the early stages. They understood his immense talent–barely reflected by his three-star ranking–and the Klein Collins (Tex.) safety moved almost immediately.

It's far too easy to forget about Thomas given that he avoided the drama generally associated with this sort of process. But he's one of the key pieces in the 2014 class. After his commitment, Chris Emma interviewed him. (In retrospect, Emma's interview is just another example of how early Thomas made his decision.) Thomas so articulately said: "Northwestern has everything I could possibly ask for—plus more. Why continue to look when everything is right in front of me?" Months later, everyone kind of realized that on their own.

Timing, momentum

Every legit program undergoes some form of surge in recruitment. This one came at the perfect time. NU currently ranks 15th in's 2014 football recruiting rankings. Yes, that will decline over time—especially given the expected small class.

But that doesn't matter: This rise brought unforeseen attention to Northwestern football. Bloggers and analysts alike have taken note of NU's improving reputation. It's almost shocking to think about how strongly one Gator Bowl victory impacted the program. It gave the Wildcats this deserved label of a "team on the rise" and recruits paid attention. Now, during a recruitment period when most classes have yet to take shape, Fitzgerald and his staff of strong recruiters are flexing their collective muscles.

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