While we're still licking our wounds from our come-from-ahead loss to Illinois, let's muster some positivity by taking a journey back to early 2007 and saluting how far our current fifth-year seniors have come.
That year, NU was coming off a 4-8 season in Pat Fitzgerald's first year at the helm, which included an embarrassing loss to FCS squad New Hampshire. The team was still reeling from the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker earlier that summer, and everybody was wondering whether Fitz, just 31 years old when he was handed the keys, would be able to right the ship for a program that seemed to be trending upward until Walker's passing.
Despite having a million reasons to go elsewhere, 19 high school seniors sent in their National Letters of Intent in February, committing their next four or five years to Fitz and NU. I'm not 100% certain, but I don't recall that any recruits who had verbally committed to NU that season decommitted after Walker's death or Fitz's rough rookie season.
They stuck with the program, and now, five years later, they have a chance to become the winningest class in NU history. Three members of the class have graduated: Josh Rooks, who saw the field as a true freshman; Scott Concannon, who didn't come back for his fifth year; and Cameron Joplin, whose career ended due to injury. The rest form the core of the squad as fifth-year seniors, and by and large, they are the leaders of the team.
There's Dan Persa, Chicago's erstwhile Heisman candidate; superback Drake Dunsmore; safety Brian Peters; cornerback Jordan Mabin; offensive lineman Al Netter; and defensive end Vince Browne, among others. They comprise 16 out of the 46 spots on the two-deep, and that's not including Jacob Schmidt, Doug Bartels and Ricky Weina, who also joined the Wildcats that offseason as walk-ons. The class was heavy on offensive and defensive linemen, and Rivals.com rated it 53rd nationally, with 14 players rated three stars (out of five). All but two (Persa and Netter) came from the Midwest.
I thought I'd take a look back at Signing Day 2007 and see what the scouts and Fitz said about these players. We'll look at the offensive players today and save the guys on defense for tomorrow. What their legacy at NU will be remains to be seen with eight regular season games left this year, but they've definitely experienced a lot of success and ought to be recognized as Fitz' first class.
At that Signing Day, NU held a press conference, playing a video clip of each player, while Fitz added commentary. For each player, I thought it'd be interesting to see what Fitz said and add my thoughts. Most of the stars of the class are on defense, but here's a look at the offense.
Dan Persa, Quarterback, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
WHAT FITZ SAID: Dan was in our camp this summer, and possesses all the skills that we're looking for in a quarterback. He can make all the throws, and when the play breaks down, he has the ability to make you pay with his feet. He amassed over 5,700 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing, with 32 rushing yards in his career. The Pennsylvania State Player of the Year, he also possesses the skills we're looking for off the field; a tremendous competitor and leader, Dan is a great fit for the quarterback position in our offense.
Ok, so the Heisman campaign was a bit overstated. But really, is there any doubt how much he means to this team? The Wildcats are simply on a whole different level when he's in thelineup. Dude's a stud, virtually impossible to tackle in the pocket and has a field awareness that is uncannily scary. Or scarily uncanny. Your pick. Persa, rated three stars, was famously recruited by RichRod at West Virginia, but he pledged to NU and Randy Walker. He would be Walker's final recruit before his fatal heart attack. Persa is the team's best pound-for-pound athlete, a workaholic in the training room. I don't know whether he'll get drafted, but on intangibles alone, he's off the charts.
Al Netter, offensive Line, Santa Rosa, California
WHAT FITZ SAID: Al is a gifted athlete that will play offensive tackle for us. As you can see here in these reps, he enjoys finishing his blocks. He had a tremendous senior year, leading his team to the state championship game against the number one ranked team in the country, Oaks Christian, taking that game into overtime. He's a big man, with great quickness off the ball, and as he gains weight and strength, should have a tremendous future at the o-line.
Netter came to NU at 260 pounds, and he's since filled out to 310. He's been a fixture as a left tackle ever since his redshirt freshman year, protecting the blindsides of CJ Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter. He's a bona fide NFL draft prospect and an all-around good guy, having been selected to the 2011 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, for his community service. An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection the past two years, he will be tough to replace when he graduates. Netter was a three-star recruit who chose NU over Fresno State, San Diego State and a couple of other non-BCS offers.
Drake Dunsmore, Superback, Lenexa, Kansas
WHAT FITZ SAID: Drake was in our camp this summer, and impressed us with his ability to catch the ball, and then his top end speed. Playing on both sides of the ball for most of his career, we expect to see Drake to play Superback for us, as a Wildcat. His father Pat played for the Bears in the early ‘80's, and is again from a tremendous football family. His ability to run after the catch will create mismatch problems for our opponents a la Dallas Clark from the Indianapolis Colts, sometimes lining up in the tight end position, or flexed out in space.
I will always remember Dunsmore for that amazing catch and run against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, where he just refused to be tackled and stiff-armed and powered his way down the sideline into the end zone. The Dallas Clark comparisons are apt, as he's been a weapon all over the field. Dunsmore was actually one of three superbacks recruited in the class, and he might have been the least touted. But after battling injuries early in his career, he's been one of our best receivers and all-around athletes. He was named to the John Mackay Award preseason watch list and the preseason second-team All-Big Ten team. With Persa back from injury, Dunsmore ought to see a lot more passes come his way. Dunsmore was a two-star recruit who chose NU over Arizona State
and Kansas State, among others.
Ben Burkett, Offensive Line, Toledo, Ohio
WHAT FITZ SAID: Ben was in our camp this summer, and as you can see from the reps here, he possesses tremendous functional strength. He impressed us in camp with his ability to play with great balance, leverage, and move his feet after contact. Here is a great example of his on-field strength. Never being satisfied, Ben is a relentless player, blocking the first man here, and then chasing down field to get a second block. We expect him to play center or guard for us in the future.
After a redshirt year, Burkett made an impact quickly, earning a starting spot as a center and holding down that job for three years and 39 consecutive starts, until moving over to right guard this season to make way for Brandon Vitabile. In recognition of his steady play at center, Burkett was named to the watch list of the Rimington Trophy, which honors the nation's top center. He was also named to Phil Steele's preseason fourth-team All-Big Ten team. Not bad for a two-star recruit who chose NU over a host of MAC schools.
Charles Brown, Wide Receiver, Chicago, Illinois
WHAT FITZ SAID: Another multi-sport athlete, Charles possesses great hands. As you can see from this play over the middle, he also has tremendous toughness and is not afraid to catch the ball anywhere. He's number one in his class academically, and will be the first athlete from Robeson High School to attend Northwestern on athletic scholarship. On this swing pass here, you can see that Charles possesses great speed and can turn a simple play into six points in a hurry. A multi-sport athlete, he has also lettered in track, and in basketball; he will be a tremendous addition to our receiving core next year.
Brown has worked his way steadily up the depth chart at wide receiver, and while he's not the most dynamic wide-out we have, he's a solid possession receiver. He's caught two passes so far this year, both in the Boston College game, and though some of the younger receivers seem to have passed him up, he is still listed as the starter in the
H-receiver position. Brown was a three-star recruit who had offers from Boston College, Illinois, Stanford and Purdue, among others.
Colin Armstrong, Offensive Tackle, Wheaton, Illinois
WHAT FITZ SAID: Colin was in our camp this summer, and we absolutely love his athleticism. He can move his feet well, gets out of his stance quickly, and as you can see here from examples on tape at tackle, he
loves to finish blocks. One of our first commitments in this year's class, we look forward to seeing Colin play on the inside of our line, at either center or the guard position.
Armstrong has spent his career as a reserve on the offensive line. He currently is the backup to center Brandon Vitabile, after beginning spring practice as the backup to guard Brian Mulroe. Rated three stars by Rivals, he was the first player to commit in the class in April 2006, choosing NU over Central Michigan.
Scott Concannon, Running Back, Columbia, Missouri
WHAT FITZ SAID: Scott was also in our camp this summer. What impressed us the most about Scott during camp was his ability to make you miss, as you can see here from changing direction at full-speed. His top end speed was also very impressive, as he makes one cut here, and then takes this run the distance for a 99-yard touchdown. His ability to change direction and top end speed make him a perfect fit for our offense. The other key component to any great back is those that posses great vision. You can see Scott fee the cutback lane here and turn a short gain into a big play.
Concannon had a few nice games, but never was quite able to live up to the promise, due largely to injury. In fact, injury issues contributed to his decision not to return for a fifth year. His best season was his redshirt sophomore year, when he was the starter for the final five games of the year, with his best performance coming against Indiana, rushing for 73 yards on 16 carries. Last season, he was sidelined for all but three games with a groin injury. A two-star recruit, he picked NU over Tulsa.
Josh Rooks, Superback, Zeeland, Michigan
WHAT FITZ SAID: Josh is a big athlete that has a very bright future at NU, as you can see here from not only being satisfied with one block, but finishing the play and getting a second. A multi-sport athlete that will play tight end for us next year, he played on both sides of the ball this year, and as you can see here, takes great pride in his blocking, finishing the play 25 yards downfield. Josh has great hands, and what makes him even more fun to watch is that it takes more than one to take the big fellow down.
Rooks, who graduated last year, was a solid, if unspectacular, blocking tight end for us. He had size, and there was talk of converting him to a tackle, especially with a ton of other superbacks on the roster, but he stayed at the position and played as a true freshman. Rooks had a handful of goal-line plays, where on play action, he'd release from blocking and sneak out for a pass and usually would be wide open. He scored the game-winning TD against Vanderbilt last year this way. Rooks was another three-star recruit, who chose NU over Michigan State, Purdue and Stanford, among others.
Cameron Joplin, Superback, Ann Arbor, Michigan
WHAT FITZ SAID: The first football player in 20 years from Pioneer High School to receive a Big Ten scholarship, Cameron was my first commitment. A huge player with great athleticism is what drew us to Cam. His ability to come off the ball, run his feet on contact and finish blocks will help him transition from high school tight end to Big Ten tight end. He catches the ball well with his hands, and has a frame to be a very big gifted athlete.
Joplin, the first to commit to the ‘Cats after Walker's death, was a really promising recruit, as a 6'4", 247-pound tight end who ran a 4.8 40-yard-dash, but alas, injuries wrecked his promising career. After redshirting his freshman year, he made a position switch to defensive end, and got into just one game in his career before hanging up the cleats. He was ranked the 39th-best tight end nationally by Rivals and was a three-star recruit, who chose NU over Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville, among others.
Tomorrow, we'll look at the defense and also what other analysts were saying about the recruiting class at the time.