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Players who need to step up in light of transfers

Northwestern’s roster looks different in 2023 as a result of the transfer portal, and some players are under more pressure than others.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As we inch further and further into August, sports fans everywhere can feel it coming. Everyone knows that the sweltering heat of summer is about to give way to something different, something that will bring us immense joy, but also frustrate us immensely. Mark your calendars for three weeks from today because that’s when we shift from summer, not to fall, but to football season as Northwestern kicks off against Rutgers.

Heading into the 2023 campaign, the ‘Cats’ roster looks a lot different than it did last year. Despite being a bottom feeder in the Big Ten, NU lost a lot of talent to the NFL Draft. Leading rusher and team leader Evan Hull is gone. So is first-round pick Peter Skoronski who anchored the left side of Northwestern’s offensive line. The defense lost Adetomiwa Adebawore and Cameron Mitchell to the pros as well.

The transfer portal also shaped this roster. The ‘Cats added talent at receiver and quarterback in presumptive starters A.J. Henning and Ben Bryant. But they also lost Malik Washington, A.J. Hampton and others in the portal. Today, we’re going to take a look at the players still in Evanston who were most impacted by this transfer season, and who have to step up this year as a result.

WR Bryce Kirtz

Kirtz had 19 receptions in 2022 for 212 yards and no touchdowns. These numbers remained similar to his totals from 2021. The lack of statistical improvement isn’t necessarily his fault, though. Remember who was throwing him the ball. The Northwestern passing attack was abysmal, and Kirtz was stuck behind Washington and Donny Navarro III on the depth chart.

Washington’s departure for UVA should give Kirtz an opportunity to show improvement. Yes, the ‘Cats brought in Cam Johnson and A.J. Henning, but neither are clear heirs to Washington’s production. With a competent passer at the helm, Kirtz will be right in the mix.

Johnson and Henning are real threats, and there are other names on the receiver depth chart like Preston Bacon who could be factors in this offense. But Kirtz has been in Evanston the longest, and seems poised to have an increased target share.

CB Garnett Hollis Jr.

Hollis Jr. saw the field plenty in 2022, and was especially impressive against Duke after injuries pressed him into service, but Hampton and Cameron Mitchell were both entrenched starters. This year, the Nashville native will likely start games for the ‘Cats and get a chance to show everyone what he’s capable of.

Hollis is a former three star recruit with size and length who played basketball in high school. According to his 247Sports page, his ball skills are also a strength. If Hampton had stayed with the program, there would have been a lot of guys fighting for Mitchell’s spot. Now, with two spots open, Hollis has a golden opportunity to solidify himself as a power five starter in 2023.

On the flip side, his leash will be short. The cornerback position is in extreme flux right now, and should Hollis struggle at any point, he will have to watch his back. Names like Theran Johnson, Ore Adeyi and Devin Turner will all be competing for snaps.

QB Brendan Sullivan

Incoming transfers can also put pressure on returning players. Sullivan likely would have started for the ‘Cats this year if Ben Bryant had not entered the picture. It’s a difficult break for Sully, who struggled at times as a starter, but showed off his rushing ability and some swagger in 2022.

In some ways, Bryant’s arrival takes the pressure off of Sullivan. He gets another year to sit, watch, absorb and learn. If the junior wants to start for this program down the road, then coaches have to see him improving as a passer. We saw last year that Sullivan is not a Big Ten quality thrower of the football at the moment. He needs to improve, and while Bryant’s presence hurts him in the immediate, there is a path for Sully to prove something this season internally.