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Northwestern Wildcats (almost) shut out again at NFL Draft

The Northwestern Wildcats’ celebrated senior class featured two guys who seemed surefire NFL picks. Only one got his name called… and in the seventh round near the end of the NFL Draft.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeyes

The day ticked away Sunday and still, no Northwestern player had heard their names called on NFL Draft day.

By all accounts, Pat Fitzgerald does a good job selling his players. The senior class entering the draft had been among the most accomplished and successful in the school’s history. By all accounts too, the players performed well at the Combine and pre-draft workouts.

Their body of work speaks for themselves.

Northwestern does not pretend that it has top-end talent. No one is waiting with bated breath on the first days of the NFL Draft. But the team is good enough and talented enough now to expect a few of its players to contend for draft selections and a few to get them.

It was more cathartic when the Los Angeles Chargers took Justin Jackson with the 251st pick — a seventh-round pick. ESPN dutifully gave him a quick word as they aired his announcement on TV. Then they replayed the cutesy French segment with Jackson they ran during Northwestern’s win over Maryland.

There was barely any mention of Jackson’s incredible accomplishments at Northwestern, other than a brief graphic showing him as the Big Ten’s third-all-time leading rusher.

The running game has taken a backseat in the NFL. But surely a durable and reliable running back in the nation’s pre-eminent rushing conference would garner a bit more interest.

The Chargers, for their part, issued the usual platitudes that come to a new draft pick:

“(He was a) highly-productive Big Ten running back in both rushing and receiving,” General Manager Tom Telesco told Chargers.com.  “His production is off the charts.  (He’s a) great kid, very smart, obviously at Northwestern.  Drafting him in the seventh round, it was pretty exciting that Justin was there and we had a chance to draft him.  We think he has a great opportunity with the way the roster is right now.”

Jackson was always going to have a long road to make the NFL, even if he got selected earlier. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Jackson does not have the size of a NFL back. Durability issues have dogged him even though he never missed any game for injury and seemed to get stronger as the game went on. The NFL can be very particular with what it looks for.

Northwestern picked up several other undrafted free agent signings. Their players were still in demand.

Safety Godwin Igwebuike, the biggest draft snub from Northwestern, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his secondary-mate Kyle Queiro with the Dallas Cowboys, converted linebacker Warren Long with the Seattle Seahawks, defensive tackle and prolific weight room warrior Tyler Lancaster Cleveland Browns and offensive lineman Brad North with the Baltimore Ravens.

The truth is Northwestern players still do not get the benefit of the doubt. They are still “Just Northwestern” in a number of ways. This despite all their recent successes and coach Pat Fitzgerald clearly getting more out of his players than the recruiting services think he might.

This was the feeling expressed by former Northwestern wide receiver Drew Scanlan just after the draft ended:

Northwestern has certainly always fought this perception. They continue to be the underdog. The battle for perception among college football programs is not merely plucky non-power five schools pushing for their seat at the table. You could argue Northwestern too is still trying to legitimize itself.

Fans are likely still not too thrilled with Northwestern’s perceived slight at the NFL Draft. The Wildcats probably are not thrilled this perception about them still exists that prevents their best players from making it.

The Wildcats are not going to have anyone picked at the top of the draft any time soon — Clayton Thorson’s mediocre junior year and torn ACL has quieted those first-round pick talks from last offseason. But still, the Wildcats seem to have deserved more for their work and their production this year.

Northwestern is again playing the underdog though. They will be that again this year. And a new crop will have to establish themselves and carry on a growing legacy to get the respect they feel they deserve.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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