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QB1, Part II: Northwestern’s Hunter Johnson gets another crack at starting things off right

Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald named Johnson, a 23-year-old senior, the team’s starter for its Sept. 3 opener against Michigan State.

QB Hunter Johnson against Michigan State in 2019. Northwestern opens with the Spartans this season.
QB Hunter Johnson against Michigan State in 2019. Northwestern opens with the Spartans this season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s simple, really.

All Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson has to be this season is everything he wasn’t the last time he got a crack at starting for the Wildcats.

Remember 2019? The Wildcats prefer to forget it. They were 3-9 that season, and at the heart of the matter was a quarterback misery-go-round.

Johnson began as the starter but didn’t make it to halftime of the opener at Stanford before being pulled. Even after backup TJ Green was lost for the season with an injury in that same game, Johnson made only four more starts. In the last of those, against Minnesota, he was yanked after attempting two passes.

It was cruel, unusual and absolutely necessary.

Johnson completed just 46.3% of his pass attempts in 2019, and that may have been his best-looking stat. Four QBs played in all, none of them well enough to keep coach Pat Fitzgerald from bringing in a graduate transfer for 2020. Ex-Indiana starter Peyton Ramsey changed everything with a blend of general competence and clutch throws — just like that, the Wildcats won the Big Ten West for the second time in three years.

But now, the QB questions are back. A big one was answered Tuesday when Fitzgerald named Johnson, a 23-year-old senior, his starter for the Sept. 3 opener against Michigan State. This lands as a surprise, transfer Ryan Hilinski — a former starter at South Carolina — having been commonly considered the favorite heading into camp.

That’s another way of saying Johnson had become commonly overlooked. Forgotten about, even, by some.

It was a heck of a fall for a player who signed with Clemson as a five-star recruit — ESPN’s No. 1-ranked QB in the country — and was the Tigers’ second-stringer as a true freshman in 2017. Johnson fell to third string in 2018 with incumbent Kelly Bryant back and a fresh-faced kid named Trevor Lawrence now in the mix.

OK, so Clemson wasn’t going to work out. But then Johnson couldn’t make it happen at Northwestern, either?

“I’m really proud of Hunter, with everything he’s been through, to step up and earn a starting job,” Fitzgerald said.

“I think it’s been a challenge. I think he’s been through a lot, and I think he’s grown and learned a ton. When he’s confident and lets his talent go out there, it’s [still] as good as we’ve had.”

As Fitzgerald agrees, Hilinski and Andrew Marty had better stay ready. For now, the coach is calling Johnson the one “who we felt could lead us to winning a Big Ten championship.”

That would be hard to pull off under even the best of circumstances, but Johnson will break the huddle with the Big Ten’s least-experienced offense in terms of statistical production. Even before some bad news confirmed Tuesday — that expected No. 1 running back Cam Porter will miss the season after a non-contact injury in camp — the Wildcats were set to return only 29% of their offensive production from the 2020 team. That ranked 127th out of 130 FBS teams, according to ESPN.

Kind of scary, right? None of Fitzgerald’s previous 15 Northwestern teams needed a QB it could count on more than this one. Maybe Johnson will turn out to be that guy after all.

JUST SAYIN’

About that chip that permanently resides on Fitzgerald’s shoulder?

You’d have one, too, if your teams were as routinely scoffed at in the summer as his.

Take the Cleveland.com poll of 34 Big Ten media members that yielded 29 first-place votes for Wisconsin and five first-place votes for Iowa in the West. According to my math, that’s zero for the school that repped the division in the league title game in Indianapolis in two of the last three seasons.

“Maybe some clickbait,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know.”

Full disclosure: I voted in the poll and picked the Wildcats third behind — wait for it — Wisconsin and Iowa. Look, I never claimed to be special.

• Hey, look, College Football Playoff odds are in my email inbox. According to Betonline, the biggest favorite to make the four-team field is Clemson. Next, in order: Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

All together now: Yawn.

• Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood showed a Hereford heifer at the State Fair over the weekend. I know this because I saw a video of it on Twitter accompanied by the words “Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood showed a Hereford heifer at the State Fair over the weekend.”

Three questions from me:

1. There’s really an Illinois State Fair? I always assumed my Uncle Cletus used it as a euphemism for “going to the bar.”

2. Where is Hereford? One hopes there are some good hoops recruits there.

3. And downstate Illini types think the disconnect with Chicago is our fault?