After losing lead receiver Malik Washington and others to the transfer portal or graduation, Northwestern’s pass-catching room was in desperate need of an influx of talent. With a group that could be described as inexperienced at best, the ‘Cats added two veteran wideouts to round out the position group.
One of NU’s biggest additions, and fastest, is Michigan transfer A.J. Henning. Henning, a former four-star recruit from Lincoln-Way East High School, spent three years in Ann Arbor, primarily serving as a return specialist. He also took multiple handoffs on jet sweeps and reverses, using his speed to beat opponents down the sideline.
However, Henning’s ability as a pass-catcher is still rather unknown. In his three seasons at Michigan, No. 3 recorded 25 receptions on 36 targets, earning less than 200 career receiving yards. While Henning has not seen many targets in his collegiate career, he will be expected to play a massive role in the Wildcats’ passing attack. His speed is something that the ‘Cats have not seen in a long time and brings a new dimension to this offense. Henning is expected to be a triple threat for Northwestern: running, receiving and returning. He is more than capable of making a huge impact on NU, and his tape shows the talent coming to Evanston.
Henning made his name at Michigan by creating game-changing plays for the Wolverines as a returner.
Henning has multiple house calls as a returner, which is something that can not be said for the ‘Cats. Northwestern was one of the worst kick-return squads in the entire nation. The Wildcats ranked 116th in the nation in kick returns and 128th in punt returns in 2022; in fact, Northwestern only had eight punt returns all season. With the numerous fair catches, NU was unable to flip the field on special teams, leaving long fields for an already dismal offense. If Henning can be the returner he was for the Wolverines, the ‘Cats will be one of the most dangerous special team units in the Big Ten.
This is one of the greatest returns I had ever seen since I started to follow college football. Henning fields the punt with three yards of separation and looks swallowed up by four UConn Huskies, yet is not phased and avoids the call for a fair catch. Instead, he shows his big-play ability. Henning breaks four tackles instantly, juking and shaking his way free from the initial attempts to bring him down and instantly finds the alley.
Henning’s vision in the open field is phenomenal, and his speed and agility make it almost impossible to take him down in space. No. 3 looks like he was shot out of a cannon, and once he hits top speed, it’s unlikely he’ll be caught. If Donny Navarro III was in the same situation, it is likely that NU would have settled for a fair catch and trotted the offense out; however, Henning created a big play just by using his athleticism. If he can do the same for Jeff Genyk’s unit, NU special teams corps will take a massive leap forward in 2023.
There might as be a trail of smoke behind Henning, because he left the Terrapins in the dust. Michigan perfectly executed this trick play, something NU should look into adding, and as soon as the ball landed in No. 3’s hands, there was a 100% chance he was finding the end zone. Henning was flying down the sideline, moving at a pace where it did not matter how good of a pursuit angle Maryland took — the newest ‘Cat had them all beaten. His speed is unmatched by anyone on the Wildcats. In layman’s terms, Henning can straight up fly. This speed is not only a huge advantage on special teams, but also on the offensive side of the ball.
I never thought I would say this, but I would not mind seeing Mike Bajakian use Henning as a running back/Wildcat QB. Henning’ style of play reminds me a lot of Deebo Samuel, who can only be described as a wideback. No. 3 is a threat from the slot, running jet sweeps, or could be used to run tosses from the backfield, allowing Henning to use his speed to beat opponents around the edge. The graduate transfer’s versatility makes him a dangerous threat to Big Ten defenses.
In the opening score of “The Game” in 2021, Henning turns on the burners to beat the Buckeyes to the end zone. As he takes the end around, the receiver follows his lead blocker and hits the sideline at top speed. The Buckeyes did not have the speed to catch up to Henning, who sauntered in for the touchdown. The newest Wildcat uses his phenomenal field vision, understanding to follow his lead blocker, and leverages his wheels to get to the sideline and score.
Bajakian uses a lot of motion to confuse the defense, and Henning’s ability from the slot will draw attention from Big Ten defensive coordinators. Whether he is getting the ball, or being used as a decoy, Henning should help open up the ‘Cats’ offense and create chunk plays.
In a very similar play to the first clip, Henning take’s the end around/counter and lets his athleticism do the rest. At the line of scrimmage, No. 3 hurdles over a defender before he even hits the open field. He follows it up by breaking an arm tackle and out-running a diving attempt of a defender. His speed makes him uncatchable, but as he tip-toes the sideline, Henning’s bend and agility kept him in bounds, allowing him to pull away and waltz in for the easy six.
Henning’s breakaway speed is undeniable, and it will help NU open its playbook and score more points. If Bajakian can scheme different ways to get the ball in his newest transfer’s hands — and that is a major if — Henning’s athleticism can take over and help the ‘Cats win Big Ten games.
While we do not yet really know Henning’s ability as a pass catcher, his overall athleticism and speed can be a huge difference-maker for NU. For a team that was lacking a home run hitter, Northwestern hit a grand slam in landing Henning. If Wildcat fans are looking for a glimmer of hope, he wears No. 3.