While it was a quiet winter, Northwestern has turned its attention to the transfer portal this spring. NU did bring in wide receiver Camron Johnson during the first transfer window; however, after the conclusion of spring practice, the Wildcats dove into the portal to fill out their roster with positions of need. The ‘Cats added defensive linemen Richie Hagarty and Matthew Lawson — adding to a room depleted following the 2022 season.
Not finished, NU’s revolving door under center may continue, as the Wildcats added sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant from Cincinnati. Bryant, who started nine games last season for UC, will enter the summer as the favorite to be the ‘Cats’’ starter in Week One. To round out a busy week, speedster A.J. Henning committed to Northwestern, completing an overhaul of the receiver room.
While the new additions to the roster do provide much-needed help at shaky positions, NU still needs help across the board. With the window to enter the portal closed, here are names that Northwestern should target to fill the remaining gaps on the 2023 roster.
I know you are probably asking, “didn’t they just add two defensive linemen?” They did, but this room was obliterated after last season. Only three D-linemen on NU’s spring roster played in double-digit games last year, and only two broke 20 tackles over the season. A full revamp of the room would not be the worst thing for David Braun’s and Christian Smith’s first year in Evanston and adding these names to the roster would certainly help.
Joshua Pakola, Fresno State
One Fresno State transfer is fine, but two is a party. Pakola is a former four-star pass rusher who originally started his career at Stanford, so academics would not be an issue for him. Pakola did not see much game action during his time for the Cardinal. After transferring to Fresno State, he decided it was not the right fit and hopped back into the portal. Pakola still has multiple years of eligibility left and can play inside or outside on the defensive line. He has a litany of pass-rush moves, both power and speed, that can get him to the quarterback. The former four-star could be a spark plug to the ‘Cats’ D-line room.
Stephon Wynn Jr., Nebraska
This would be a home run for Northwestern if it can land Wynn. The former four-star entered the portal for the second time in his career, spending the first part of his career in Tuscaloosa before transferring to Nebraska. In his lone season in Lincoln, Wynn compiled 22 tackles — his career high. While his numbers do not jump off the page, Wynn earned a 66.5 PFF pass-rushing grade in 2022. Despite being 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, Wynn is a force to be reckoned with across the line. He creates havoc from a zero technique. Wynn has violent strikes but is fundamentally sound, understands leverage and moves blockers to close holes quickly. He is also very good in stunts and getting on the move — something a certain former NU D-lineman thrived at.
Reginald Pearson, Bethune-Cookman
Pearson announced on Twitter on May 10 that he received an offer to play for the Wildcats. He currently has two years of eligibility remaining if he joins Pat Fitzgerald and Co. The 290-pounder only played four games last season, racking up a mere eight total tackles. This is Pearson’s first FBS offer, both out of high school, JUCO and the portal.
Interior Offensive Line
Heading into 2023, and assuming Josh Priebe is healthy, Northwestern will have four new starters on the offensive line compared to its opening game in 2022. The ‘Cats lost all three of their interior offensive linemen to graduation, so the positions are wide open. While NU has players like Braeden Edwards, Nick Herzog and Ben Wrather looking for opportunities, it should not prevent the ‘Cats from looking for a veteran presence in the trenches. Northwestern attempted to bring in offensive line help earlier this off-season, hosting Stanford center Drake Metcalf for an official visit, but Metcalf committed to the UCF Golden Knights. NU is still scanning the portal, so these names should be on its list.
Zack Zambrano, Princeton
Northwestern basketball already added a Princeton grad transfer, so why shouldn’t football follow the same path? Zambrano started every game for the Tigers at left guard in 2022, and earned a 66.8 overall grade from PFF; however, there was a large discrepancy in his style of play. While Zambrano acquired a 78.7 PFF pass-blocking grade, he only scored a 59.6 run-blocking grade. With Ben Bryant, a pro-style QB, joining NU, an offensive line that can keep him upright and in the pocket is integral to the ‘Cats’ success. A strong, veteran pass-blocking guard would be a solid addition for the Wildcats, and Zambrano fits the bill.
Ethan White, Florida
The Florida guard was expected to transfer to USC but never made it out to Los Angeles. White played every game last season for the Gators, earning a 70 overall PFF grade. He was a solid pass blocker, allowing only 12 hurries and 12 pressures all season — garnering a 76.3 pass-blocking grade. White would slide into the left guard position for the Wildcats, and provide instant stability for whoever is behind center.
Michael Purcell, Elon
Purcell is still looking for a home after originally committing to Duke. He spent four years at Elon, including starting every game last season at center. Purcell was a solid blocker for the Phoenix, scoring a 67.4 overall grade from PFF. Fitting with a recurring theme in this section, Purcell stood tall in pass protection. He allowed only one QB hit, four hurries and five pressures in 2022. For being 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Purcell is extremely light on his feet and maintains his balance when facing a bull rush. He has a violent first punch, but can also block in space while pulling.
It is a brand new era for the SkyTeam in 2023. Northwestern lost its top two corners from the 2022 season: Cam Mitchell was drafted to the NFL, and A.J. Hampton transferred to Tulane for his final year of eligibility. NU only has two corners who played more than 100 snaps last season on its roster. While the Wildcats have a multitude of unproven prospects, bringing in players with experience on the back end would help the ‘Cats compete with the high-powered offenses of the Big Ten (excluding Iowa).
Antonio Carter II, Rhode Island
Carter had a great fourth season for the Rams, breaking up eight passes and forcing three takeaways this season — garnering a 76.5 PFF coverage grade. On top of being good in coverage, Carter is not afraid to come downhill and lay the boom. He enjoys sniffing his nose in the run and understands his role in the run fit extremely well. It will be a tough fight to land Carter, as he has interest from numerous Power Five schools.
Tyreke Johnson, Nebraska
Why not join a third Big Ten team? Johnson, a former four-star, played three years at Ohio State but never found meaningful snaps with the Buckeyes, so he transferred to Nebraska in 2021. Johnson played only four defensive snaps for Nebraska in 2021 and did not see any game action in 2022. Still an unproven prospect, Johnson’s raw ability made him the top safety recruit in 2018, according to Rivals. If the ‘Cats take a swing on Johnson, maybe LaMarcus Hicks can unlock Johnson’s potential.