Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sounded almost giddy as he looked toward the future and unveiled the latest recruiting class.
The Wildcats officially added 15 players Wednesday on national signing day as they try to pick themselves up from a disappointing season, including quarterback Clayton Thorson of Wheaton and running back Auston Anderson of Plano, Texas.
"We're excited about these guys," Fitzgerald said during a news conference at a Chicago restaurant. "We're excited about not only this group but where we're going. The guys we have coming back are very hungry and very focused."
The signings come against an unusual backdrop.
Last week, former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers announced plans to form the first labor union for college athletes, a move that the NCAA and Big Ten criticized. Northwestern backed the NCAA's stance but also supported the students' independent thinking. Fitzgerald also praised them on Twitter last week for following "their beliefs with great passion and courage."
Spokesman Paul Kennedy, citing a pending hearing with the National Labor Relations Board, said Wednesday the school could not answer questions about the plans to unionize.
Fitzgerald did have more to say about the recruits while insisting that the program remains in good shape after such a disappointing year.
Northwestern went from winning 10 games to finishing 5-7 in a season that started with so much buzz. The Wildcats were 4-0 with a 10-point lead over Ohio State when everything turned. Northwestern lost that game and dropped seven in a row before winning the finale at Illinois.
"(The recruits) watched us play," Fitzgerald said. "We had opportunities to win all those games, maybe you could argue except for maybe two that we didn't play very well. But all the other games, we had an opportunity to win."
Anderson, who was recruited by Texas, reminds Fitzgerald of star running back Venric Mark. Thorson, who committed last March, has drawn high marks from recruiting analysts for his arm strength and poise. Tight end Garrett Dickerson and linebacker Cameron Queiro, both from New Jersey power Bergen Catholic, are joining their older brothers at Northwestern as is linebacker Nathan Hall of Toledo, Ohio.
Star cornerback Parrker Westphal of Bolingbrook, Ill., has been participating in winter workouts after he completed high school in December and enrolled at Northwestern for the start of classes on Jan. 6.
Defensive lineman Fred Wyatt of Lawrence, Kan., also has a connection to Northwestern. His father Buddy, the defensive line coach at Kansas, spent two years in the same role under Gary Barnett at Northwestern in the late 1990s. And Buddy Wyatt and Fitzgerald worked on Barnett's staff at Colorado.
National rankings (Rivals 66; Scout 56).
Best in class: Clayton Thorson, QB, Wheaton, Ill.
Best of the rest: Austin Anderson, RB, Plano, Texas; Garrett Dickerson, TE, Englewood, N.J.; Justin Jackson, RB, Carol Stream, Ill.; Parrker Westphal, CB, Bolingbrook, Ill.
Late addition: Xavier Washington, DE, Cedar Hill, Texas
One that got away: Hamilton Anoa'I, LB, San Mateo, Calif.
NOTE: DL Fred Wyatt of Lawrence, Kan., comes with a connection to Fitzgerald and Northwestern. His father Buddy was the defensive line coach at Northwestern for two years in the late 1990s, and Buddy and Fitzgerald worked under Gary Barnett at Colorado.