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Northwestern football’s top 10 players of 2023

Which ‘Cats were most pivotal to the team’s remarkable season?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As we at Inside NU continue reflecting upon Northwestern’s improbably successful 2023 season, it’s hard to think of just a single player name as to why the Wildcats went 8-5 with a bowl win over Utah. Indeed, we asked our staffers to rank the team’s top 10 players from this past season.

We calculated the composite ranking by giving 10 points to a first-place vote, nine to a second-place one, and so on. An honorable mention vote (everyone was allowed to list one player there) received half of a point. Here were their votes:

Honorable Mentions

Received votes: OG Josh Priebe (16 points), WR A.J. Henning (14.5), DE Aidan Hubbard (11), DE Jaylen Pate (8), RB Cam Porter (1)

This group had its fair share of great moments. In particular, Priebe was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team, while Hubbard led the team with six sacks on the season. Henning made an impact in both the passing and run game, while Pate was a force off the edge all year.

And now, with out further ado...

10. K Jack Olsen (17.5 points)

It was a terrific season for Olsen, who was nearly automatic from inside 50 yards throughout most of the year. He didn’t miss an extra point and went 14-for-19 kicking field goals. Two of those misses came in the Las Vegas Bowl. Regardless, that didn’t take away from a terrific year from Olsen at a position where the Wildcats have typically lacked consistency.

9. CB Garnett Hollis Jr. (25 points)

With the departures of Cameron Mitchell and A.J. Hampton after 2022, Hollis needed to step into an expanded role on the outside. He did just that, allowing completions on 57.9% of balls thrown his way (lower than any other starter). Hollis racked up 49 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception.

8. S Devin Turner (25.5 points)

Turner barely edged out his fellow Sky Teamer. From the very first series against Rutgers, the sophomore put his physicality and run-stopping skills on full display. Jeremiah Lewis’ late departure following Pat Fitzgerald’s firing brought questions about how Northwestern would fill the safety spot opposite Coco Azema, but Turner stepped up to the challenge. He finished 2023 with one forced fumble, 68 tackles, an interception at Nebraska and six breakups.

7. S Coco Azema (40 points)

Azema’s highlight of the year came against Maryland, when he snagged the game-winning interception in a shocking Northwestern win against the Terps. Once again, he put his physicality against the run on full display with his tackling ability. While he missed the last quarter of the season or so, Azema served as a steady presence in a very good secondary.

6. LB Bryce Gallagher (53 points)

You know you’re in a good spot when the leading tackler and Second Team All-Big Ten selection doesn’t even crack the top half of the list. Gallagher racked up 120 in 2023 and forced two fumbles. His 19 tackles in Week One started the season, and he ended the year with a fourth-down stuff in Las Vegas to set Ben Bryant and the offense up for the game-winning drive.

As No. 32 enters the NFL Draft, he will be severely missed in the middle of David Braun’s defense.

5. WR Bryce Kirtz (61 points)

For anyone wondering why Kirtz is this high, look no further than his masterclass against Minnesota. His career game — in which he racked up 10 catches for 215 yards — couldn’t have come at a better time. It was a crucial reason why Northwestern was able to crawl out of its 21-point hole and turn its season around that Saturday night. The receiver also enjoyed solid performances against Nebraska, Purdue and Utah, capping off his season with the game-winning touchdown in Las Vegas. He was second on the team in receiving yards with 701, only 14 yards behind Cam Johnson.

4. CB Rod Heard II (72 points)

Heard was a constant for the ‘Cats in the back end for the last few years, but he had his best showing in 2023. He had a career-high in tackles, forced two fumbles and an interception. He was a force in the run game, playing inside the box on nearly 200 snaps. We could drone on and on about his ability to punch the ball out, and no one loves a peanut punch more than Inside NU (well, maybe David Braun does), but we would be here all day.

3. QB Ben Bryant (98 points)

What else can you say that hasn’t already been said? Had Bryant not gotten hurt, you can make a real argument that the Wildcats could have earned a trip to Indianapolis. His pocket presence provided a steadiness to the offense that hasn’t been there since Peyton Ramsey donned purple and white. His resilience in the Las Vegas Bowl, in which he came back from an apparent concussion to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive, was a fitting end to a shocking season for the Cincinnati transfer. Bryant finished with 1,807 passing yards in 10 games on a 62.5% completion percentage, slinging 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.

2. WR Cam Johnson (100 points, one first-place vote)

Johnson was probably the most consistent player on the entire team. He racked up fewer than 30 receiving yards in a game just once, and caught multiple passes in every single game. As the ‘Cats hit their stride in November, Johnson emerged as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. He caught touchdowns in each of the last five games, and his performances against Purdue (52-yard catch-and-run touchdown, three catches for 88 yards) and Illinois (seven receptions for 124 yards and a score) might have earned NU two wins. Armon Binns will surely miss Johnson next year.

1. ILB Xander Mueller (132 points, 12 of 13 first-place votes)

Mueller dominated the top spot on our staff’s lists. The Third-Team All-Big Ten honoree was all over the field this year, finishing 2023 with 110 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble. There was no shortage of highlights for No. 34 this year: from his third-down stop on Darius Taylor, to sealing a bowl spot with a game-winning interception over Purdue. When the ‘Cats needed a play, Xander Mueller was the one to make it. With Mueller returning for a fifth year, David Braun and Tim McGarigle retain a key cog in their defense.

Here are our staff’s full rankings:

Inside NU’s Top 10 Northwestern Football Players, 2023

Composite Bradley Locker Iggy Dowling David Gold Miguel Muñoz Ascher Levin Ethan Segall Eli Kronenberg Ethan Weinberg Jacob Hare Patrick Winograd Brendan Preisman Leo Tesler
Composite Bradley Locker Iggy Dowling David Gold Miguel Muñoz Ascher Levin Ethan Segall Eli Kronenberg Ethan Weinberg Jacob Hare Patrick Winograd Brendan Preisman Leo Tesler
Xander Mueller (132) Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Cam Johnson Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller Xander Mueller
Cam Johnson (100) Cam Johnson Coco Azema Cam Johnson Ben Bryant Ben Bryant Xander Mueller Ben Bryant Cam Johnson Ben Bryant Ben Bryant Ben Bryant Cam Johnson
Ben Bryant (98) Ben Bryant Ben Bryant Ben Bryant Cam Johnson Rod Heard II Garnett Hollis Jr. Cam Johnson Ben Bryant Cam Johnson Cam Johnson Cam Johnson Ben Bryant
Rod Heard II (72) Jack Olsen Cam Johnson Rod Heard II Rod Heard II Cam Johnson Devin Turner Bryce Gallagher Bryce Gallagher Rod Heard II Bryce Kirtz Rod Heard II Bryce Gallagher
Bryce Kirtz (61) Bryce Kirtz Rod Heard II Jack Olsen Bryce Kirtz Coco Azema Bryce Gallagher Bryce Kirtz Bryce Kirtz Bryce Gallagher Rod Heard II Bryce Gallagher Bryce Kirtz
Bryce Gallagher (53) Rod Heard II Devin Turner Bryce Kirtz Bryce Gallagher Bryce Kirtz Rod Heard II Rod Heard II Coco Azema Devin Turner Bryce Gallagher Bryce Kirtz Rod Heard II
Coco Azema (40) Jaylen Pate Bryce Kirtz Jaylen Pate Coco Azema Josh Priebe Ben Bryant Coco Azema Rod Heard II Josh Priebe Josh Priebe Coco Azema Coco Azema
Devin Turner (25.5) Coco Azema Jack Olsen Devin Turner Aidan Hubbard Devin Turner Coco Azema AJ Henning Garnett Hollis Jr. Bryce Kirtz AJ Henning Garnett Hollis Jr. AJ Henning
Garnett Hollis Jr. (25) Garnett Hollis Jr. Aidan Hubbard Garnett Hollis Jr. Garnett Hollis Jr. Bryce Gallagher Bryce Kirtz Garnett Hollis Jr. Josh Priebe Aiden Hubbard Coco Azema AJ Henning Josh Priebe
Jack Olsen (17.5) Devin Turner Bryce Gallagher Bryce Gallagher Cam Porter AJ Henning Aidan Hubbard Aidan Hubbard AJ Henning Garnett Hollis Jr. Garnett Hollis Jr. Aidan Hubbard Garnett Hollis Jr.
Aidan Hubbard A.J. Henning AJ Henning Jack Olsen AJ Henning Devin Turner Aidan Hubbard Jack Olsen Devin Turner Jack Olsen Devin Turner