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Northwestern football’s offseason questions: What can we expect from Hunter Johnson and the offense?

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Johnson is uniquely talented. Whether NU can leverage those skills in Mick McCall’s offense is another question.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

As spring practice begins to come to a close, Inside NU will be embarking on a new series of stories regarding the most important questions for Wildcat football to address in the offseason. With coaches and players coming and going and potential position battles galore, Northwestern has plenty to focus on going into its season opener in late August. With these stories, we will highlight what we feel are the most important questions that this team is facing as they try to build on nearly unprecedented success. Next, we move onto Hunter Johnson and Mick McCall, who are sure to dominate comment boards through the fall:

This is a big one. Northwestern has to replace its most statistically-successful quarterback ever, and the Wildcats reeled in the best recruit in modern NU history to do so. Everyone is excited about Hunter Johnson, the five-star transfer from Brownsburg, Ind. via Clemson, S.C. But what can we expect from Johnson, and more importantly, how will Mick McCall integrate him into the offense? Will the footprint of the offense change much?

First, let’s run through Johnson’s prodigious talents.

What can Hunter Johnson do?

An elite athlete, Johnson was an all-state track performer at Brownsburg High School, running the 400-meter dash and the 4x400-meter relay. Johnson’s 2015 relay team, which included freshman receiver Bryce Kirtz’s older brother, placed fourth in the state and set a school record with a time of 3:17:81. According to athletic.net, Johnson himself ran a 52.63 400-meter dash. It’s rumored that he runs a 4.6 40-yard dash.

To complement his athletic gifts, Johnson has a huge arm. In his high school tape, you can see him simply flick his wrist to make throws 20 to 30 yards down the field. He averaged over 13 yards per completion in high school and threw for 69 touchdowns. People around the program have said his tools are better than Clayton Thorson’s.

And, yeah, he was pretty damn impressive as a freshman at Clemson. I don’t think it’s particularly instructive to look at Hunter Johnson’s tape from Clemson because most of his snaps came in garbage time and he looked his best against The Citadel and Kent State. But hey, it’s all we got and it’s really fun.

Check out how he looks off the safety before dropping in a perfect outside shoulder throw here:

Sure, it came against The Citadel, but it’s not hard to imagine a more explosive NU offense if Johnson can deliver a more accurate deep ball than Thorson could.

All in all, Johnson was 21-of-27 for 234 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception as a freshman in 2017. It’s fair to say he acquitted himself pretty well as a freshman, even against ACC third-stringers and the Kent States of the college football world. Clemson kept things very simple for him and opponents often obliged by playing soft coverages.

Still, it’s nice to see Johnson throw with some anticipation.

The pass-catchers problem

It is true that Johnson is one of the most, if not the most talented quarterback to suit up for NU in the modern era. It is also true that Johnson will be limited by the scheme and the athletes he plays with during his time at Evanston.

Clemson’s receivers in 2017 were goooooood, and to put it simply, they made Johnson look good, too. That nice throw from Johnson down the sideline against The Citadel only happens because Tee Higgins makes an unreal over-the-shoulder, one-handed catch. He’s a 6-foot-4, five-star recruit. Clemson’s other top receivers that year? Deon Cain (five-star, 4.43 40, sixth-round pick), Ray-Ray McCloud (four-star, 4.53 40, sixth round), (Diondre Overton, four-star), and Hunter Renfrow (walk-on legend, 4.59 40).

So while it’s really fun to imagine Johnson tossing bombs left and right, it’s probably not that realistic. Northwestern doesn’t have pass-catchers with the straight-line speed to run by defenders on a regular basis. That trend is slowly changing with the emergence of Kyric McGowan and JJ Jefferson. Adding Bryce Kirtz and Genson Hooper-Price, two of the most athletic receivers Fitz has recruited, into the mix will help as well. But the point is, Johnson will have a much smaller margin for error downfield than he did at Clemson.

So will the footprint of the offense change?

TL;DR: Probably not.

The program is keeping its cards very close to the chest regarding the quarterback “battle” this spring, neglecting to name a front-runner. A few logical inferences lead me to believe that NU’s offensive scheme won’t change much with Johnson presumably at the helm, though. Mick McCall is still the offensive coordinator. Fitz still thinks McCall is a good developer of talent and runs an offense that is adequate enough to keep him on board. NU did not go out and hire someone from the Mike Leach coaching tree or the latest Sean McVay doppelganger to mentor Johnson. And Johnson knew what he was signing up for. He could have chosen Purdue for a more aggressive offensive scheme.

Moreover, Johnson is already good at a lot of things NU already does. He’s mobile, and capable of making throws on the run on designed rollouts, which NU employed for much of 2018.

Let’s just hope McCall doesn’t get too frisky with the speed option. Expect Northwestern to move the pocket around a lot and mess around with plenty of RPOs. Johnson isn’t as big as Thorson, so I’d guess NU will lean heavily on Isaiah Bowser in short-yardage and goal-line situations instead of their signal-caller.

Over 70 percent of Clayton Thorson’s 490 throws in 2018 came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. Nearly 90 percent of his throws came within 19 yards of the line of scrimmage. I anticipate that trend will continue, at least in Johnson’s first year at the helm. If McGowan, Jefferson, Kirtz and Hooper-Price prove they can stretch the defense, we could see some more shots down the field. Still, this offense will be reliant on Bowser and the spread concepts intended to keep the offense on schedule.