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2023 Northwestern football position reviews: Wide receivers

The Wildcats’ top three pass-catchers had a terrific year.

Northwestern Athletics

Continuing with our position reviews, we move to the outside today, looking at one of Northwestern’s most talented wide receiver rooms in recent memory.

Note: Receivers that totaled at least two receptions are included here.

Overall Grade: A-

The transfer portal paid major dividends for Northwestern’s wide receiver room. Even though the ‘Cats lost Malik Washington, one of the best receivers in college football this year, the team added Cam Johnson from Arizona State and A.J. Henning from Michigan. Johnson, Henning and Bryce Kirtz led the receivers.

Johnson and Kirtz both had over 700 yards, and Henning contributed 418 yards. The trio combined for 148 receptions. While Northwestern had a strong top three pass-catchers, the next leading wide receiver — Raymond Niro III — only had 40 yards. All wide receivers outside of Johnson, Kirtz and Henning combined for 10 catches and 92 yards.

Johnson will be out of eligibility next season, but Kirtz and Henning have the ability to return. Through using the transfer portal or developing their own receivers, the ‘Cats will need to find a few other players that can step up next season. Three receivers that could emerge for the team next season are Frank Covey IV, Reggie Fleurima and Calvin Johnson II. As a first-year, Covey IV made his debut against Rutgers. However, he ended up getting hurt soon after, and didn’t garner a large number of snaps after he got healthy. Fleurima hasn’t gotten the opportunity for many snaps on the field but is a former four-star. Throughout the season, Johnson II seemed to be the team’s fourth wide receiver, but he didn’t collect many targets while in the game.

I decided to give the receiver room an A- because of its overall great play throughout the season. In the middle of the season when Ben Bryant got injured and Brendan Sullivan replaced him, the passing numbers dropped; however, looking at the full season, the receivers had solid outputs. Between Johnson, Kirtz and Henning, there wasn’t a true number one receiver, but they all had their moments. The room isn’t obtaining an A because of the lack of depth and production behind the top three pass-catchers.

Player Grades

Cam Johnson: A

Johnson, the sixth-leading receiver in the Big Ten, was the most consistent pass-catcher for the ‘Cats. This season, he recorded 54 catches for 715 yards. Johnson ended the year on a tear, catching a touchdown in each of his last five games. His best game came against Illinois, where he recorded seven catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. Johnson seemed to have a great connection with Ben Bryant, and his best games were all with Bryant at quarterback.

This was Johnson’s final year of eligibility, having spent four years at Vanderbilt and one year at Arizona State. Before this year, Johnson’s best season was in 2020 when he had 56 catches for 545 yards and three touchdowns. He blew away those numbers this year and caught a career-high six touchdowns. Johnson gave the ‘Cats something they lacked in previous years: a receiver who could make tightly contested jump-ball catches.

After coming off a disappointing 10 catches for 84 yards with Arizona State last season, the transfer portal addition of Johnson proved to be monumental for Northwestern.

Bryce Kirtz: A-

Kirtz had his best season at Northwestern in his fifth year. His career has been hampered by injuries, as he’s had four knee surgeries in his first four years with the ‘Cats. Before this year, Kirtz recorded 44 catches for 482 yards in four seasons combined. This year, Kirtz finished as the conference’s seventh-leading pass-catcher with 49 receptions for 701 yards and five touchdowns.

His best game took place in the miraculous comeback against Minnesota. Kirtz had 10 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns. It’s remarkable because Kirtz’s best season prior to this year was in 2022, when he had 212 yards. Against the Golden Gophers, he passed his best yardage for a season in one game. Kirtz was a key reason why Northwestern was able to come back against Minnesota, and he was a great deep threat for the team throughout the season. His two longest catches went for 66 and 80 yards.

The main reason why Kirtz isn’t receiving an A is because he had a few quiet games during the year. In three separate games, Kirtz had three catches for fewer than 20 yards. Kirtz wasn’t as consistent as Johnson, but he had some big games against Minnesota and Nebraska. Kirtz has the ability to return next year, and if he does, it will be a huge boost for Northwestern’s receiving corps.

A.J. Henning: B+

This season, Henning recorded the best year of his college career. After spending his first three years at Michigan, Henning transferred to Northwestern and made a major impact. He was the 23rd-leading receiver in the conference with 45 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns. At Michigan, Henning was primarily used for his kick and punt returning abilities; however, at Northwestern, he was more involved in the offense.

Henning’s best game of the season came against Wisconsin, when he had three catches for 70 yards and a touchdown, which included a one-handed grab for 41 yards in the second quarter. He also had four carries for 13 yards in that game. Henning closed out the season strong against Utah with six catches for 57 yards. One of his most notable catches of the year came against Minnesota when he caught a slant route to send the game into overtime in the final seconds.

Henning was utilized in many ways in Northwestern’s offense. He carried the ball on jet sweeps and end around plays. He also caught screen passes and was a fantastic speed element for the offense. No. 3 also gave the ‘Cats a deep ball threat and provided special teams value by returning kicks and punts. Henning has the ability to return next season and will be a key player if he does so.

Raymond Niro III: Incomplete

Niro III suffered a foot injury during fall camp and was initially thought to be out for the season. However, he was able to return and contribute, hauling in three receptions for 40 yards. His best game of the season was against Wisconsin when he had two catches for 31 yards. Even though it was a tough start for Niro III’s final season with Northwestern, the former walk-on was able to finish out the year strong.

Calvin Johnson II: Incomplete

Johnson II completed his third year with the ‘Cats by posting four catches for 32 yards. His best game of the season came against Howard, catching three passes for 24 yards. Johnson II has the chance to make an impact for Northwestern next season.