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Hunter Johnson’s second act is Northwestern’s biggest

With Johnson, Northwestern’s future just got brighter — and the stakes just got higher.

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

At 3:13 p.m. Monday, a white and red rectangle flashed across my phone. When I saw the notification, I almost jumped out of seat. The message was in all caps. My thoughts were in all caps. Proof:

The program was clearly excited too. Like everything else happening at the time, the subject line of the email release email from Northwestern Athletics Communications was in all caps. That was not the case when punter Jake Collins’ transfer was sent out (we love you, Jake!)

Everyone knew how big this was. Let’s not sugarcoat it. Hunter Johnson is the biggest recruit in Northwestern football history.

Kyle Prater — the only other five-star recruit to commit to Pat Fitzgerald — was ranked a little higher than Johnson out of high school, but Prater was not a quarterback. Even if Prater had been as good as his recruiting rating may have predicted, one receiver can only do so much. Johnson, meanwhile, will have the ball in his hands on every play. If Johnson’s the real deal, he can take Northwestern where it hasn’t been under Fitz. More on that later.

The timeline of Johnson’s eligibility is near perfect, as many have noted. Longtime starter Clayton Thorson will play this season while the ineligible Johnson sits and learns, and Johnson can take over in 2019. Johnson doesn’t have to rush to learn the playbook, and he can learn from Thorson, who played a significant role in recruiting the former Clemson signal-caller.

The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s path to NU were also nearly perfect. Johnson’s older brother Cole played football at Northwestern, and, based on what several players have said, he had a good experience playing for Fitz.

Fitz had already recruited Johnson once, but now they both needed each other. Well, at least Johnson needed Fitz this time. You hear Pat Fitzgerald and the program gush over Northwestern’s “football family,” but there’s some truth in that phrase. Fitz really does care about his players, and parents trust him to take care of their children. That’s partly why Northwestern has had so many brothers in the past several seasons. Recruiting is about relationships, and Fitz has a track record to prove his are real.

As exciting as Johnson’s transfer is, it feels like he’s being hailed as the second-coming, which seems precarious. I’m just as pumped as the next Northwestern fan about Johnson, but there’s always the chance things don’t work. Even in just two years at Northwestern, I’ve been here long enough to know that disappointment has a rude tendency to float into Ryan Field or Welsh-Ryan Arena. I don’t want to be a downer, this is most certainly not the time for that. But understand that things aren’t guaranteed to work out. Sup, Mick McCall.

When you watch Johnson’s highlights from high school, or even the few moments when he played at Clemson, you understand the sky-high expectations. He doesn’t have the size or arm of Clayton Thorson, but he’s a good runner and throws with uncanny anticipation. In Northwestern’s spread offense, Johnson may be the perfect style of quarterback.

I also want to dig into the argument that Johnson is somehow damaged goods from his pristine recruiting ranking after failing to earn the starting role at Clemson. Bluntly, that is totally untrue. Kelly Bryant was good enough to take a team to the College Football Playoff, and Trevor Lawrence is one of the best quarterback prospects to hit college football in recent years. Yeah, Johnson probably isn’t good enough to earn Heisman votes. He’s still good enough to be a program-changing player at Northwestern.

Which brings us to the crux in all of this. Is Johnson the key that unlocks the Big Ten West puzzle Pat Fitzgerald has been trying to crack for years?

At this point, there’s no way to answer that. What I do know is that Johnson gives Northwestern a better shot to get to Indianapolis than any other quarterback who will be on the roster during Johnson’s (expected) three years in Evanston. Because of that, there is heightened excitement, heightened expectations and heightened urgency. It’s almost pointless to speculate about four years in the future, but it seems like Fitz has to break through in the next four years. At that point, he’ll have been at Northwestern for 16 years. I’m not saying his job would be at any sort of risk if he has no division titles by the end of 2020, nor should it be. But I think, at that point, it becomes increasingly clear that Fitz could make Northwestern good, but not great.

But, I’ll stop there. Four years is a long time. I know my life will be drastically different from where it is now.

For now, pump your fists about Hunter Johnson. This is really, really big. We can revisit this conversation in a year.

Clayton Thorson, the floor is (fingers-crossed) yours.