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Northwestern football position reviews: Quarterbacks

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It was a tough year for the leaders of the offense.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year. First up is, unfortunately, the quarterbacks.

Overall grade: D

No position group came under more scrutiny this year than the signal callers. After losing four-year starter Clayton Thorson to the NFL, Fitz and co. had to make a big choice under center.

They opted initially to go with Hunter Johnson in Palo Alto before replacing him mid-game with fifth-year senior TJ Green. Any debate over who would start future games was quickly squashed, however, when Green suffered an injury later in the game that would require surgery, ending his season.

However, there was plenty of drama left to unfold, as Johnson handed off the role to both Aiden Smith and Andrew Marty at points in the year. Let’s take a look at the unit.

Player Grades

Aidan Smith: D-

Stats: 50 percent completion percentage, 760 yards, three touchdowns, nine interceptions

The stats tell the story for the senior. When Smith took over for Johnson, it got even uglier for the Northwestern offense. Each and every game, the NU offense struggled to throw the ball, and Smith was the main reason why. Sure, the offensive line and receiving core often weren’t great, but the ultimate responsibility has to fall on the shoulders of the presumed offensive leader.

Smith refused to throw the ball downfield and consistently missed open receivers underneath, whether it be because he didn’t identify open players or just flat out couldn’t hit them. He did find some success on the ground, but it was marginal. The redshirt junior rushed for a touchdown and 211 yards on 2.9 yards per carry (though that includes sacks).

On the other hand, it’s hard to blame Smith too much for his struggles. He came into the year as the third string quarterback and was never supposed to see the field. But Smith didn’t prepare well enough for his chance, and Fitz openly got on him for that. All in all, it was a poor year for the Indiana native.

Hunter Johnson: D

Stats: 46 percent completion percentage, 432 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions

Expectations were high for the Clemson transfer when he took over the starting role, and they proved out of reach. Despite his five-star talent, rumors quickly began to swirl that Johnson struggled to grasp the offense. He wasn’t able to find his footing in any game outside of a win against a brutal UNLV team, and it quickly became a season to forget.

Everyone kept waiting for the redshirt sophomore to break through, but it never happened. Sadly, we learned midway through the season that Johnson was dealing with some serious family struggles, explaining his lack of playing time. But nonetheless, he was another quarterback that Fitz indirectly called out for a lack of preparation, and the struggles were evident in his play.

Johnson will be in an intense quarterback battle over the spring and summer, and this time we know that it is a very legitimate one. It’ll be interesting to see if he can establish himself as the player we all hoped he could be.

TJ Green: Incomplete

Stats: 6-10 for 62 yards, 3 carries, 10 yards, one lost fumble

Unfortunately, though the redshirt senior looked very solid in his limited action, his season came to a close too early for him to earn a grade. We hope to see him back next year.

Andrew Marty: B

Stats: 64 percent completion percentage, 150 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions

The Ohio native first saw some action against Ohio State, where his lone throw on the day was picked off, but when he came in to relieve against Minnesota, he helped Northwestern put some points on the board. It didn’t result in a win for the ‘Cats, but Marty showed that he was best suited to lead the offense against Illinois. And he did.

In a run-first attack, Marty had the best performance of a Northwestern quarterback all season. He carried the ball for 111 yards, got in the end zone twice, and even threw a peach of a ball to Riley Lees for a short passing score. In the end, he positioned himself to be right in the thick of the quarterback battle when spring comes around.