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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald not ready to say who will be starting QB: ‘It’s a battle’

Though highly touted transfer Hunter Johnson is the presumptive starter, coach Pat Fitzgerald said it’s still anyone’s game.

Northwestern’s quarterback conundrum is an intriguing one. Though there are six quarterbacks on the roster, the decision likely will come down to two players.
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At the Big Ten kickoff luncheon last month, a conference representative announced that highly touted transfer Hunter Johnson will be Northwestern’s starting quarterback.

The only problem? That decision hasn’t been made, coach Pat Fitzgerald said Wednesday.

Though Johnson is the presumptive starter, Fitzgerald said it’s still anyone’s game.

“The reality is, it’s a battle,” Fitzgerald said.

The quarterback conundrum is an intriguing one. Though there are six quarterbacks on the roster, the decision likely will come down to two players. Johnson is a former five-star recruit who was the backup to Kelly Bryant at Clemson in 2017. Fifth-year player TJ Green paid his dues as a walk-on and served as backup to Clayton Thorson last season.

T.J. Green said it would mean a lot to him if he was named Northwestern’s starting quarterback. But he also said he’ll accept whatever role they give him.

Green, whose father, Trent, played 15 NFL seasons, has the upper hand when it comes to experience in the Wildcats’ offense. Last season, he appeared in nine games, completing 20 of 36 passes for 169 yards.

Green also was mentored by Thorson, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Northwestern history.

“I talked to [Clayton] right before he went to training camp, and he’s like, ‘Just do what you do and don’t try to do too much. Just stay within yourself,’ ” Green said.

Meanwhile, Johnson has the upside and three more years of eligibility that Green doesn’t.

Still, Johnson has yet to prove he’s the real deal.

In 2017, he completed 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He ran the scout team last season while he sat because of NCAA transfer rules.

“The guys respected his humility and ability to come in and work,” Fitzgerald said. “He was running a different team’s offense every week, and so he’s playing catch-up in the playbook.”

The starting gig ultimately will go to the player who knows the playbook better, is more confident in his abilities, doesn’t turn the ball over and has strong leadership skills, Fitzgerald said.

Green and Johnson were praised for their leadership by wide receiver Riley Lees, who said he’s also eager to learn who the starter will be.

“They’ve done a good job with that, and they both know the offense and they’re executing well,” Lees said. “The whole competition will make all the quarterbacks better, which I’ve noticed from spring and now.”

There’s no word on when Fitzgerald will make his decision, meaning the situation could remain fluid for the next several weeks leading up to the opener Aug. 31 at Stanford.

Northwestern can’t afford a slow start like previous seasons. It has a grueling early schedule, with six of its first seven opponents projected to be Top 25 teams, and three of those games are on the road.

Though growing pains are to be expected, Green and Johnson aren’t concerned about adapting to the system during challenging games.

“We’re really up for the challenge,” Green said. “We know our schedule is tough to begin with. . . . But I think we’re ready to take that on, and no matter which quarterback is going to start, the team will rally behind him.”

Johnson said he’s “absolutely” confident he could have an immediate effect on the offense.

“We got guys that can make some plays and stretch it downfield,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of depth from a receiver standpoint, running back standpoint, so I think our guys on the offensive side are very excited about what we’re going to do this year.”

Camp fires

Five other hot topics in training camp:

Underdog mentality: Northwestern has embraced the underdog role in the past, and this season will be no different. ESPN’s power index has it favored in only four of its 12 games.

Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will “just keep winning” to prove doubters wrong.

Much-needed boost: While the starting quarterback is still in the air, one thing is for sure: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has to find a way to bring life back to his offense.

In 2018, Northwestern’s road to the Big Ten West title came with a bit of luck and just enough offense. The team averaged 354.4 yards, ranking 107th in the nation.

This season, the Wildcats might not be as lucky and will need more production if they want to repeat as division champs.

Retooled O-line: Speaking of offense, part of the reason Thorson struggled to move the ball last season was because of an underperforming offensive line.

Rashawn Slater is one of two starters returning to Northwestern’s offensive line this season.

Northwestern is returning only two starters, Rashawn Slater and Jared Thomas. Fitzgerald also promoted quality-control analyst Kurt Anderson to offensive line coach in January.

Fitzgerald believes the offensive line will be more disciplined this season.

In like Flynn? There’s no doubt that the loss of receiver Flynn Nagel, who led the team in receptions (68) and receiving yards (780) last season, will be felt early on. But luckily for the Wildcats, their receiving corps is deep.

Expect Lees and senior Bennet Skowronek to step up.

Fireside chats: Linebacker Paddy Fisher said miscommunication on defense led to the five losses last season, including the Big Ten title game.

“That’s one thing we’ve been harping on all offseason, was coming in and getting groups of LBs, DBs and D-linemen in here to watch film and go through our checks and calls and be solid on our communications,” Fisher said.

Get to know him

Last season, receiver Riley Lees stepped up when Flynn Nagel went down with an injury.

Lees, whom Northwestern originally recruited as a quarterback, ended the season on a high note with a breakout game in the Holiday Bowl, scoring two touchdowns against Utah after having only one during the season.

Receiver Riley Lees has high expectations for himself this season.

Lees plans to build off that momentum.

“Whatever my role is, whether it be in the slot doing whatever or returning punts, all that stuff, I’ll just do whatever we need to do to win,” he said.

Fitzgerald has been impressed with Lees’ development over the last two seasons.

“Probably the biggest growth has been in his hair,” Fitzgerald said of Lees, who had his dirty blonde hair pulled into a half-up, half-down hairstyle Wednesday. “He has a lot of salad, it’s pretty special.

“This is the strongest he’s ever been. We have great trust in him as a punt returner, kick returner. He has phenomenal ball skills.”

Circle the dates

Aug. 31 at Stanford: The last time Northwestern played Stanford was in Clayton Thorson’s first season. Can the new quarterback follow in Thorson’s footsteps with a win to start the season?

Sept. 28 at Wisconsin: Northwestern will be tested early with back-to-back Big Ten West road games. A victory over the Badgers would put the Wildcats in a good spot to repeat as division champs.

Oct. 18 vs. Ohio State: The Wildcats must have this game, a Friday-nighter, circled in purple after the Buckeyes did them wrong in last season’s Big Ten Championship Game.