Donny Navarro III Player Spotlight: Is third time a charm?

By Ashley Tumpowsky

On Feb. 23, 2022, Donny Navarro III took to Twitter to announce that he would be using his final year of eligibility to play for the Northwestern Wildcats. 

A Naperville, Illinois native, Navarro graduated Neuqua Valley High School in 2017. After failing to receive any FBS scholarship offers, he decided to take his talents to Valparaiso, a small Division I program located in Porter County, Indiana. The 5-foot-11-inch slot receiver was quick to find success as a Beacon, grabbing a 50-yard bomb for his first career catch against Montana. Navarro ended the season leading not only Valparaiso, but also the whole Pioneer Football League conference, in receiving yards per game, total receiving yards and yards per catch.

This gained the attention of then-Illinois wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker who, although unable to offer Navarro a full ride, hinted to the young player that if he transferred, he would be given the opportunity to prove he deserved a spot on the team.

And so Navarro took the leap of faith, transferring from the small Valparaiso football team to the Big Ten Illinois football program. Despite having to sit out in 2018 due to NCAA transfer rules, he continued to work diligently, determined to improve his game even as a member of the Illini’s scout team. Rod Smith, Illinois’ offensive coordinator at the time, took notice of Navarro, who continued to make plays against the Illinois starting defense in practice. 

So when his time came a year later, Navarro joined the Fighting Illini as a walk-on in 2019 and earned his spot as a backup wide receiver. In his first season at Illinois, the red-shirt sophomore amassed a total of 27 receptions for 345 yards and two touchdowns. Navarro also made notable standout plays, like breaking loose for a 48-yard touchdown to help boost Illinois to a 24-23 upset against No. 6 Wisconsin. 

Donny Navarro breaks loose for a 48-yard touchdown catch against No. 6 Wisconsin

Illinois teammate Josh Imatorbhebhe commended Navarro’s incredible work ethic. 

“People don’t know this but every single day, Donny is in the indoor (facility) working out and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it,” Imatorbhebhe said at a press conference after the win against Wisconsin. “I hope this is just the beginning for him.”

On Nov. 7, 2019, then-Head Coach Lovie Smith rewarded Navarro for his formidable play by surprising him with a full scholarship during a team meeting. 

Head Coach Lovie Smith surprises WR Donny Navarro with a full scholarship

However, Navarro’s statistics went down after his breakout first season at Illinois. In his next two seasons combined, Navarro caught a mere 25 receptions for a total of 255 yards. His stunted progress can be partially attributed to the arrival of new Head Coach Bret Bielema in 2021, known for his traditional run-first offensive philosophy. 

Most of his talent was redirected by Bielema to punt returning, where he took 16 punt returns for an average of 7.6 yards in 2021. 

Not satisfied with his position at Illinois, Navarro declared his intention to enter the transfer portal as a graduate transfer on Jan 21, 2022 before committing to the Illini’s in-state rival – the Northwestern Wildcats.

Although never the tallest, fastest, or most athletic player on the field, Donny Navarro brings consistency, hard work, and experience to Northwestern, something which is greatly needed with a relatively young wide receiving core. Given his ability to return punts, Navarro also helps fill a hole in the Northwestern roster, one shared by running back Ray Niro and wide receiver Bryce Kirtz in 2021. 

Navarro showed great potential in his Purple-and-White debut, grabbing four passes for 29 yards in the Aer Lingus Football Classic against Nebraska. Quarterback Ryan Hillinski seemed to have great chemistry with the transfer, the two connecting for a beautiful touchdown pass right before half. 

Ryan Hillinski connects with Donny Navarro for a go ahead touchdown before half (Credit: B1G Network)

Donny Navarro and the rest of the Northwestern football team will take on Duke this Saturday, Sep. 10 at 11:00 a.m. CT for their first home game of the season. Sriman Narayanan and Andrew Neville are on the call throughout Chicagoland on 89.3-FM and worldwide on Mixlr with coverage starting 20 minutes before kickoff.

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