As the 2022-2023 seasons have all come to a close for the Wildcats, it’s time to look ahead to the next time a team in purple and white will take the field.
Northwestern football looks to bounce back after two abysmal seasons, but in an offseason headlined by changes, who actually will be playing for the Wildcats come opening day in Piscataway is still up in the air. Nonetheless, NU has multiple positions full of unproven talent awaiting their opportunity and help return of the ‘Cats to their winning ways. Although Northwestern will presumably not release an official two deep before summer ball begins, here is where the position groups stand heading into training camp.
First String: Ben Bryant
Second String: Brendan Sullivan
For the third year in a row, Northwestern enters training camp with a question mark at the most important position on the field.
After the conclusion of spring practice, the Wildcats brought in sixth-year transfer Ben Bryant, who spent the last season under center for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Bryant, who had a brief stint at Eastern Michigan as well, has an 82.1 PFF grade in his two seasons as a starter and a 2.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. While by no means a done deal, Bryant is the odds-on favorite to be under center for NU in Week One, as it seems unlikely the sixth-year would transfer to a spot where he would be a backup QB.
On the other hand, Sullivan’s sophomore campaign makes him an interesting figure heading into 2023. No. 6 was the favorite to win the starting role in spring practice, but now finds himself trying to snatch the job from a veteran.
Sullivan showed sustained improvement in each of his starts, garnering a 77.0 PFF passing grade in his final three starts of the season. While his numbers do not fly off the stat sheet, Sullivan brought a new dimension to the ‘Cats’ offense and opened up the playbook. He made numerous plays with his legs and found different ways to keep drives alive. It would have been very intriguing to see how the Michigander developed since taking the reins, but he finds himself looking to steal the job away once again.
First String: Cam Porter
Second String: Anthony Tyus III, Joseph Himon II
Losing Evan Hull is a massive blow to the Wildcats, but the running back room remains one of the strongest position groups on the roster.
Now two years removed from a torn ACL, expect Cam Porter to look much closer to his 2020 self. In the COVID-shortened season, the rising senior racked up a team-high 333 yards and five touchdowns. After missing all of 2021, Porter looked more agile and athletic down the stretch of his junior campaign. His vision is phenomenal, his burst through the line of scrimmage vastly improved. If Porter is at full strength, NU has a strong lead back to tie the offense around; however, No. 4 cannot be expected to carry all of the load.
Tyus is one of the ‘Cats’ biggest breakout star selections heading into the 2023 season. He has shown flashes in his first two seasons of Evanston, but with Hull departing for the NFL, the rising junior will see an increase role this year. His speed is the best among NU’s running backs, and will be the primary pass catching back for NU in 2023.
First String: Cameron Johnson, Bryce Kirtz
Second String: Jacob Gill, Preston Bacon
Probably the ‘Cats’ most overhauled group heading into the 2023 season, Northwestern’s pass-catchers look to drastically improve under new position group Armon Binns. 2022’s leading receiver, Malik Washington transferred to UVA, and multiple other contributors either transferred or had no eligibility left. As a result, the Wildcats’ receiving corps heads into the spring had a combined 400 yards.
With drastic help needed, NU went portaling and added graduate Cameron Johnson. Johnson, who spent 2022 at Arizona State, played four years at Vanderbilt. The sixth-year has surpassed 1,300 career reception yards on over 130 receptions. Johnson’s 6-foot frame will provide a target for whoever is under center. On the other side of the field, Kirtz will look to take a massive leap after being the Wildcats’ third-most productive receiver last season. Kirtz averaged 11.16 yards per catch on only 19 caught balls. His 6-foot-2 body allows him to high point the football and create favorable matchups against smaller corners.
Gill, although not in the starting 11, will see plenty of snaps this season. His speed makes him a threat both inside and outside the numbers, and the rising junior will have to make big plays this upcoming season. Furthermore, Bacon was constantly mentioned by Pat Fitzgerald as a name that stood out during spring ball, so he will be a name to keep an eye on during the 2023 campaign.
First String: A.J. Henning
Second String: Calvin Johnson Jr.
Northwestern added much-needed speed when Henning transferred from Michigan. Henning, who primarily served as a kick and punt returner for the Wolverines, will occupy a multitude of roles for the Wildcats — including inside the hashes. Henning’s speed and versatility make him a phenomenal fit for Mike Bajakian’s offense, being able to both catch the football or run sweeps. Henning’s route running is good but still has plenty of room for improvement; however, he will make an instant impact for the Wildcats, and fans should be excited to see Henning in purple and white.
First String: Marshall Lang, Thomas Gordon
Second String: Duke Olges, Charlie Mangieri
One of the strongest position groups for the Wildcats, expect Northwestern to employ 12 personnel as a mainstay of its offense. Lang and Gordon are 1a and 1b at the position, with both being above-average pass blockers and catchers. However, both need to improve in the run game, especially when being asked to kick out closing defensive ends. Yet, when split out wide, Lang and Gordon provide favorable matchups against smaller, nickel corners, safeties or linebackers. The big-bodied tight ends provide stable targets for whoever is under center for Northwestern and will be major factors in Northwestern’s offense this season.
Olges is a converted defensive lineman turned tight end. He is a big frame that can help move piles in the run game, but is not much help as a pass catcher. Olges saw meaningful snaps in 2022 due to injuries, but NU will likely hope to avoid using the former D-lineman as its main tight end.
First String: Josh Priebe, Caleb Tiernan
Second String: Dylan Senda, Zachary Franks
After four years of stability at left tackle, Northwestern enters a period of uncertainty on the outside of the offensive line.
Priebe, who has spent his career on the interior of the line, is expected to move outside in 2023. Priebe has been good as a pass blocker and puller, but protecting the blindside is a completely different beast. Priebe is also coming off a serious knee injury and was not cleared at the beginning of spring ball, so the limited reps may be an issue down the road.
Tiernan was inserted into the starting five early into the 2022 season and took his lumps in his first season of meaningful snaps. The rising junior allowed 11 pressures and six QB hits in 2022; however, at 6-foot-7, 325 pounds, Tiernan has all the raw ability to be a phenomenal tackle. Fitzgerald said that NFL scouts have already taken notice of Tiernan.
Senda enters his first season of college football as a highly rated prospect. With proper development, he will continue the trend of dominant tackles for NU.
First String: Jackson Carsello, Dom D’Antonio
Second String: Nick Herzog, Braeden Edwards, Jordan Knox
This is the hardest position to predict. Northwestern’s two 2022 starters both ran out of eligibility after last year, so it will be two brand new faces in the ‘Cats’ starting five. Herzog, D’Antonio and Ben Wrather all saw very limited snaps last season, but seem to be the favorites to win the job heading into training camp. While no one knows who will be in the lineup come Week One, the Wildcats will need to find an answer quickly.
First String: Ben Wrather
Second String: Jackson Carsello
The only Wildcat to play center other than Charlie Schmidt last season was Wrather. Also, the best of my research, no younger Northwestern O-lineman suited up in the middle in high school. Transitioning from another offensive line position to center is not extremely difficult but provides uncertainty at a crucial spot. The Wildcats should monitor the portal for any offseason additions to fill this gap in the lineup.
First String: Najee Story, Matthew Lawson
Second String: Carmine Bastone, Reginald Pearson, Brendan Flakes
Much like offensive line, defensive line is a huge question mark for Northwestern. In fact, it was so concerning that the Wildcats went out and added two transfers to beef up the interior D-line at the conclusion of spring practice. NU will have a lot of unproven talent inside the trenches this year, and it could spell trouble for David Braun’s defense.
First String: Sean McLaughlin, Aidan Hubbard
Second String: Jaylen Pate, Richie Hagarty, Michael Kilbane
Losing Adetomiwa Adebawore leaves a massive hole in the ‘Cats’ pass rush, and NU has to be better than it was in 2022. McLaughlin may be moved inside in Braun’s scheme, but will be the predominant pass rusher for the Wildcats. Hubbard and a whole host of edge rushers will rotate throughout the season, and hopefully for Northwestern, an unknown player makes a huge impact in getting to the quarterback.
First String: Bryce Gallagher, Xander Mueller, Grayson Metz
Second String: Mac Uihlein, Braydon Brus, Cullen Coleman
Northwestern’s most seasoned group is expected to have a strong season in 2023. In Braun’s 4-3, these linebackers will be able to play more downhill and make plays in the run game — an area in which they excel. However, the main question surrounding this group is their ability to drop into pass coverage. Braun has mentioned bringing a safety in the box to alleviate the pressure on the linebackers, but whether or not the unit can play sideline-to-sideline is yet to be seen.
First String: Garnett Hollis Jr., Theran Johnson
Second String: Ore Adeyi, Devin Turner
Another position undergoing large turnover for Northwestern. Both starters, A.J. Hampton and Cam Mitchell, moved on from the Wildcats, leaving massive holes in the back end. Hollis Jr. and Johnson are the favorites to fill those roles, with each seeing meaningful snaps in 2022; however, anyone can swoop up a starting job during training camp.
First String: Jeremiah Lewis, Rod Heard II, Coco Azema
Second String: Devin Turner, Garner Wallace
This group is good. Lewis, Heard and Azema are all going to play meaningful snaps for the Wildcats. In Braun’s scheme, I would expect to see Heard play as a linebacker at times, seeing time inside the box as run support. Otherwise, the safeties are solid in pass coverage and in their run responsibility.
First String: Rod Heard II
Second String: Devin Turner, Coco Azema
Any of the four of Lewis, Heard, Azema and Turner can all be extremely productive in the slot. My assumption is whoever is not playing the traditional safety position will act as the slot corner. If the ‘Cats want to play competitive football, they need to find a way to get Lewis, Heard and Azema on the field at the same time, and this is the perfect way to do it.
Kicker: Jack Olsen, Jacob Tabibian
Punter: Luke Akers, Hunter Renner
Long Snapper: Will Halkyard
Return Specialist: A.J. Henning
The days of the fair catch specialist are gone. Henning provides an instant spark to a unit that was a non-factor in 2022. The Michigan transfer is a big play waiting to happen, and any advantage gained on special teams can be a huge momentum swing in a close contest. A healthy Jack Olsen means the Wildcats, hopefully, will attempt field goals this season, with Northwestern not attempting a kick from over 40 yards during the entire 2022 season. Akers and Renner both showed the ability to flip the field in 2022, so both should have a chance to win the job during camp.