As Northwestern gears up to face Utah in the upcoming SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl, the ‘Cats also find themselves navigating through one of the busiest periods on the collegiate calendar — the opening of the first transfer portal.
Since the portal opened on Dec. 4, more than 1,100 Division-1 student-athletes have entered their names looking for a new home. While Big Ten rivals like Purdue and Michigan State have witnessed over 15 players enter the portal, Northwestern has only had four student-athletes make that decision: QB Cole Freeman, DL Matt Lawson, DB Nigel Williams and LG Josh Priebe.
Despite having only a couple of players enter their names in the portal, Northwestern is still projected to enter 2024 with several holes across its roster. However, these areas of need could be addressed through the portal. Here’s a look at a few positions of need and players who might be a good fit.
Even though Northwestern is expected to retain a substantial portion of its defensive line production from this season, the Wildcats still face challenges in this unit, having finished ninth in the Big Ten with only 25 sacks this year. Additionally, the team is poised to lose multiple veteran and reserve players on the defensive line, with Lawson being the first confirmed member actively seeking a new team. If head coach David Braun can successfully recruit these defensive linemen to Evanston for the 2024 season, it would be a significant boost for Northwestern.
Devean Deal, Tulane
After a quiet first two years at Tulane, Deal burst onto the scene in his third season with the Green Wave, where he recorded 40 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. His breakout year has made him a hot commodity in the portal, but the Wildcats may have a leg up, considering Northwestern offered Deal a scholarship in high school. If Northwestern can land the speedy and powerful pass rusher the second time around, it would be a gigantic addition to the defensive line unit.
Joey Slackman, Penn
It would be a home run if Northwestern could land Slackman. The defensive lineman enters the portal as one of the most sought-after players after a prolific career at Penn, where he recorded 115 total tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Northwestern has already begun its pursuit of Slackman by offering him a scholarship shortly after he announced his departure from Penn. It will be a tough battle for Braun and his staff to land Slackman, as the Penn product has offers from schools such as Michigan, Oregon, Florida, Washington and USC. However, if the Wildcats can secure him, he has the potential to elevate their defensive line unit to new heights.
With Cam Johnson leaving Evanston and Bryce Kirtz possibly following suit, the Wildcats find themselves needing to retool their wide receiver corps this offseason. This year, the duo contributed to more than half of Northwestern’s 2,401 passing yards as they combined for 1,317 receiving yards. Aside from A.J. Henning, who ended the year with 361 receiving yards, no other wide receiver on the roster came close to rivaling the production of Johnson and Kirtz, which presents challenges for the Wildcats in the future if they don’t address the position. If Northwestern can add any of these players, it would substantially boost the Wildcats’ offense next year.
Keontez Lewis, Wisconsin
Lewis entered the portal after struggling to secure a role in two seasons at Wisconsin. Despite his limited time on the field for the Badgers, he displayed flashes of being an elite-level deep threat due to his blazing speed and 6-foot-2, 196-pound frame. Given his Illinois roots and a previous offer from Northwestern in high school, the Wildcats could emerge as a legitimate suitor to land the deep-threat wide receiver.
Trayvon Rudolph, Northern Illinois
During his three seasons at Northern Illinois, Rudolph turned into quite the playmaker, hauling in 111 receptions, 1,623 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Additionally, he rushed for 282 yards and had 1,388 return yards, including one kick returned for a touchdown. Rudolph’s versatility could introduce a significant spark to Northwestern’s offense, addressing an element that sometimes seemed absent this past season. Rudolph is an Illinois native, so a homecoming could be possible.
Whether Cam Porter decides to return to Evanston for another season or not, the Wildcats still need to add another player to the backfield to ease the load on the running back position. This year, with an increased role due to the departure of Evan Hull, Porter was solid on the ground, rushing for 618 yards and four touchdowns, but struggled to be an effective receiver with only 19 receptions for 104 yards. Fortunately for the Wildcats, there is a wealth of talent at the running back position in the portal.
Reggie Love, Illinois
Love’s first three years at Illinois were hindered by the presence of current Cincinnati Bengals running back Chase Brown, who held starting duties. However, when Love got a starting opportunity this year, he shined, leading Illinois with 567 rushing yards and scoring four touchdowns. If the Wildcats can lure Love away from their cross-state rival, it would be a massive pickup for their running back room.
Pat Garwo III, Boston College
After five years at Boston College, Garwo enters the portal with an impressive resume that includes over 1,900 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Throughout his time at Boston College, the running back consistently displayed good awareness and vision in the open field and elite burst. The veteran could immediately stabilize Northwestern’s backfield.