When you’re recruiting at a Group of Five school, it’s rarely a glorious endeavor. You don’t see your hat on the table as a prized recruit makes his commitment on national TV. Analysts don’t so much as acknowledge your recruiting class’ existence, let alone discuss how it impacts your program.
For a year or sometimes more, you grind it out, trekking hundreds of miles, putting in countless hours of face-time at high schools across the country and desperately trying to identify that program-changing prospect that somehow went unnoticed. Even at a school like NIU that has won 57 games in the past five seasons, National Signing Day is both the culmination of a lot of work and the beginning of a heckuva lot more.
And while that’s true of every signing class in some regard, it’s especially true for a mid-major football program trying to compete at the highest level.
At a place like Northern Illinois University, you never accumulate enough talent capable of consistently winning on its own regard. Evaluations are based more on potential, and after National Signing Day, what sets you apart from every other recruiting class ranked in the bottom half of the country is your ability to help athletes realize that potential.
In 2015, the NIU Huskies signed the second-best recruiting class in the MAC behind Western Michigan by a handful of points relatively arbitrary in their value and their derivation, according to Rivals.com. They managed to scoop a handful of prospects they wouldn’t have otherwise been involved with thanks to the rising profile of a program that wins frequently and seems primed to be regular members of the G5 New Year’s Six discussion.
However, despite signing solid three-star athletes like Spencer Tears (a top 15 prospect in Illinois) and D.J. Brown (a little burner at running back from Arkansas), it won’t be star-power that keeps NIU on top of the Mid-American Conference. Recruiting at this level requires an advanced degree in chemistry (the proverbial kind that makes a roster gel seamlessly) and a lot of luck.
You’ve got to find the Chandler Harnishs and Jordan Lynchs of the world and consistently pull prospects that dramatically outperform their star-rating. You have to find projects in talent-rich areas far from home and you have to find a way to get the absolute most out of them.
On Wednesday, NIU signed 30 players to National Letters of Intent. In a press conference on ESPN3, head coach Rod Carey didn’t bother differentiating between who was a walk-on and who was a scholarship player because he knows that each and every player will ultimately dictate the continued success (or lack thereof) of this program.
He recruited to fill positional need and continued to enhance the footprint of NIU within the state at a time when Illinois is ripe for the taking with the Illini and Northwestern struggling to consistently get a grip on the Chicagoland area. He went into nine other states, including southern outliers like Alabama and Arkansas (outside the traditionally talent-laden states of Texas and Florida) to infuse the roster with more overall team speed.
The result was a class that–on paper–appears to be one of the more complete recruiting efforts in the conference. However, when it comes to evaluating a signing class chock-full of two and three-star prospects, it’s not as simple as declaring a winner within the confines of a chart or a spiral notebook.
Over the course of the next three or four years, best recruiting class honors will be awarded based upon wins and losses, and we won’t create excuses about why a class did or didn’t pan out. We’ll just claim a better understanding that one coaching staff was better at evaluating talent than another.
Teams across the country like NIU found some pieces on Wednesday that will make immediate impacts next fall. However, unlike their Power Five counterparts, nobody finishes National Signing Day with an over-inflated perception of self-worth.
There’s no hats, no analysts and no mythical champion. This is just the beginning.
Get full National Signing Day coverage on Today’s U here.