No one at fault in Watkins decision

It's hard to fault anyone in the Dareian Watkins situation.

In May, Dareian Watkins committed to Northwestern — then a program on the upswing. The Wildcats won 10 games and the 2013 Gator Bowl, which somehow landed on the same calendar year as this disastrous season.

Perhaps, at some point, Watkins doubted the program. NU lost to Ohio State on GameDay and then began its rapid decline. I'm sure other commits have felt the same way, or have quietly questioned their decisions.

Anyway, he visited Wisconsin for a game at Camp Randall Stadium. And in a related event, he faced disciplinary problems throughout his high school season. Both factors contributed to the decision reached last night, when Pat Fitzgerald informed Watkins that there would be no scholarship available for him.

Maybe Watkins planned on de-committing regardless of Fitzgerald's call. Maybe he wanted to enjoy some visits while still considering Northwestern. Maybe he was heartbroken. That, we'll never know exactly.

Here's one thing I know: We shouldn't criticize anyone involved with this decision. In fact, I'm growing to respect Pat Fitzgerald more and more in this tumultuous season.

Respect for someone and belief in someone are two wildly different things. I'm not sure this football program can recover from recent setbacks; I certainly think that the coaching staff cost this team one victory along the way with its conservative approach.

But despite program morale being at an all-time low, Fitzgerald owned up to his established precedent and suspended Malin Jones for violating team rules. You know what? Good for him.

Everyone rooting for the Northwestern program itches for positive news. With six straight losses, a rebuilding basketball team and disappointing, unmet expectations, you sense this desperation in Evanston.

"I didn't want them to pull it," Ray Davison said about 10 months ago. The three-star outside linebacker committed to Northwestern last November, and then saw his pledge revoked upon choosing to visit California. As Chris Emma wrote then: "You're either committed or you're not."

Fitzgerald needed to honor this in the Watkins situation, and he did. Imagine the temptation he faced: Form the double standard and cling to a top commit or let go and move on. It's anything but a hopeless recruiting class. Still, NU's head coach has stuck with character — as he should.

I'll never question Dareian Watkins, by all accounts a courageous and dedicated football player. You've heard it before. Elite prospects face immense pressure during the process. If he felt unsure about his NU commitment, then it makes sense to visit other schools. And whether he ends up at Wisconsin or somewhere else, you can only hope it's a soft landing.

I don't think this marks an indictment of NU football. This might actually open up a more essential scholarship — given that Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler took an important receiver spot for these next two seasons. The Wildcats are confident they can land Parrker Westphal or Garrett Dickerson – even better, both – and shore up what should still be an impact recruiting class.

On this, of all days, I respect Pat Fitzgerald and I wish the best for Dareian Watkins. The Wildcats can only hope that the right character pays dividends in the long run.

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