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Why patience is a paradox for Northwestern football in the transfer portal

If the Wildcats want to wait, they very well may miss out on top options to address areas of need.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

As the sport of college football has changed diametrically in recent years with elements like realignment and NIL coming to the forefront, the transfer portal has entered that same fray. Now twice (if not more, barring coaching changes) per calendar year, players have an opportunity to place their names in the portal and find a new destination to call home. In many ways, college football has developed its own period of free agency.

For Northwestern and every other team, that window opened officially this past Monday. In that span of six days, nearly 1,100 Division I players have placed their names in the portal, including a slew of would-be NFL Draft picks and/or all-conference selections. For the Wildcats, four athletes have done so: LG Josh Priebe, QB Cole Freeman, DL Matt Lawson and DB Nigel Williams.

Even though NU is still working its way through bowl preparations in advance of its date with Utah on Dec. 23 in the Las Vegas Bowl, David Braun’s first legitimate offseason as head coach has already truly begun. That’s even apparent in analyzing the Utes, who have seen their top receiver (Devaughn Vele) and top two defenders by snap count (Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop) declare for the 2024 NFL Draft.

Last Sunday, subsequent to determining its bowl game fate, Braun spoke to the media, where he had a chance to reflect about the current state of the program and its directions moving forward. In regard to the portal, Braun noted that the focus is on “being really intentional about the things that matter right now,” stressing that an emphasis is being placed on talking to current players about their desires.

Moreover, Braun was candid about how Northwestern plans to utilize the transfer portal — as a clear-cut supplement to high school recruiting and development.

“As we know at Northwestern, this model will not change,” Braun said. “We’ll have some transfers, but this program will be built off of very thorough high school recruiting. … We’re just different.”

That aforementioned structure has generally worked for the Wildcats, so it’s easy to understand why Braun wants to mirror it as he enters Year Two and beyond. At the same time, putting the portal on somewhat of an afterburner raises a number of qualms.

For one, if NU isn’t pursuant of top talent in this window, it inherently restricts which players will be at its disposal when it looks back to the portal in the spring period, with a more cerebral understanding of roster weaknesses. The vast majority of these current transfer players will have found a destination by the time the winter portal closes on Jan. 2, which means the ‘Cats won’t get another crack at this specific bunch. In this case, that includes a boatload of immense quarterback talent — like Duke’s Riley Leonard, Kansas State’s Will Howard, UCLA’s Dante Moore and more — plus headliners and former five-stars at virtually every position.

With the looming departure of Ben Bryant and Freeman, it’s likely that Northwestern will have to add a QB at some point this offseason. Admittedly, it’s not as if the Wildcats truly need one of those aforementioned signal-callers, but they innately pigeonhole themselves if they wait until the spring for someone under center, let alone any position.

It’s not only about filling positions of need, either. By being somewhat aggressive in the portal now, NU has the capacity to demonstrate that it’s not content with a 7-5 finish, and indicate to both stellar recruits and top-flight programs that it wants to compete to build the best roster it can. That rings especially true when four hyper-competitive programs will enter the Big Ten next year, not to mention other rivals (e.g., Minnesota, Wisconsin) already zeroing in on starting quarterbacks.

To be fair, the Wildcats have done that to some extent by offering Penn DL Joey Slackman, ranked as 247 Sports’ 22nd overall player in the portal. Otherwise, though, Northwestern has scarcely been tied to premium players, if at all.

There is definitely truth and a feel-good sentiment to the concept of wanting to finish the 2023 season in full, and thus waiting until the final whistle blows from Allegiant Stadium in two weeks. At the same time, in the modern context of college football, doing that can pose some significant concerns.

NU came head-to-head with them when Priebe, a senior and captain, declared his intentions. In his statement, Priebe mentioned “uncertainty surrounding Coach [Kurt] Anderson’s future here,” plus “no timeline for when coaching changes will be made.” Even if Braun has a rather thorough understanding of which players/coaches will stay and go, that element of hedging can drive wedges in a sport where people are trending toward quicker decisions.

Frankly, it’s not as if the portal is the be all, end all for teams around the nation. Look toward Madison or Boulder, Colorado to see two squads that fell rather flatly on their faces despite incorporating fresh names with high-star ratings. Braun is correct in wanting to have recruiting be the program’s backbone. Even then, though, Northwestern’s last two successful seasons have been buoyed by transfers — like Ben Bryant, Cam Johnson, Peyton Ramsey and John Raine — which probably isn’t a coincidence.

Ultimately, the ‘Cats have found a model that seems to work for them over the last few years, which is generally landing transfers later in the year (e.g., Bryant, A.J. Henning, Richie Hagarty, etc.). Yet, as Braun begins his first bonafide cycle at the helm, it offers a chance to reevaluate his process, one which will need tweaking as the Wildcats navigate a revamped CFB landscape. In 2023, it’s hard to contend that Northwestern’s shouldn’t already be looking to its 2024 roster via the portal’s first window — attracting impact players as early as possible while still maintaining its priorities of fit and character.