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Hunter Johnson roundtable: Are the expectations too high?

Can Mick McCall actually turn the Northwestern star into the player Northwestern fans envision?

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

Hunter Johnson has been perhaps the most hotly debated topic of the offseason for Northwestern football fans. Pat Fitzgerald has still refused to name a starter under center, though most seem to believe that said refusal is mainly gamesmanship. Meanwhile, Mick McCall, who will be the mastermind behind the prized recruit’s years in the backfield, is not exactly known for his innovation. Are Northwestern fans expecting too much from Johnson without seeing him in game action? Can Mick McCall take advantage of his prodigious talents? Our writers attack these big questions below!

Davis Rich

Yes, the expectations are too high. It’s difficult to gage exactly where “expectations” are, but I wouldn’t expect Johnson to be an All-Big Ten quarterback in 2019, nor would I expect his right arm to lead NU back to Indianapolis. There are certainly going to be growing pains. NU’s offense is pretty darn conservative, and the Wildcats will be breaking in a new QB, three new offensive lineman, a new superback and a new wide receiver. Mick McCall will not have Johnson lobbing bombs down the sidelines from the get-go. Sure, Johnson may complete a few more passes a game that Clayton Thorson couldn’t, but I wouldn’t expect a whole lot to change.

Let’s not forget either that Johnson is new to this. His collegiate experience has come exclusively in garbage time and in practice. In the first seven games of the season, he will face Stanford, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. Woof. It took Clayton Thorson over a year to adjust to Big Ten competition. People around the program and recruiting rankings say that Johnson has a higher ceiling than Thorson, but there will be an acclimation process for the Clemson transfer.

Johnson could march into Palo Alto, Madison and Lincoln, lead the Wildcats to victory and prove me completely wrong. But I think the safe bet is to pick the early Johnson era to mirror the early Thorson era. More important for the NU offense is replacing three offensive linemen and two key pass-catchers.

Joe Weinberg

I can remember multiple times last season where Clayton Thorson airmailed a throw or took too long in the pocket, to which myself or someone else in the room/Ryan Field bleachers responded with something along the lines of, “Hunter makes that throw next year.”

Let’s face it. We have no idea what kind of product we’re going to get from Johnson on the field next season. We can analyze Johnson’s high school highlights and 27 career college pass attempts all we want, but the fact of the matter is that he is not a proven college player. His inexperience on the field should cause as all to take a step back and evaluate the vulnerable quarterback situation Northwestern is in right now. The Wildcats are losing a four-year, veteran starting quarterback, and the program won’t be able to feel comfortable with its situation under center until a player steps up and prove they can lead the offense week in and week out.

I don’t buy the “five-man battle for quarterback” rhetoric from Mick McCall and Pat Fitzgerald and have no doubt that Johnson has all but locked up the starting job in Palo Alto on Saturday August 31, but we won’t truly know what to make of Hunter Johnson until he shows us what we can do on the field. Hype is fun and it gives us something to look forward to and get excited about, but at the end of the day, it’s all speculative.

Avery Zimmerman

Yes and no. When Johnson committed last year, I was a giddy high school senior who envisioned Big Ten titles in my four years at NU, but as time has passed, my expectations for him have simmered. Fitz has done nothing but temper expectations surrounding Johnson, and it’s telling that he is allowing a quarterback battle to unfold. Sure, this might just be Fitz’s way of motivating Johnson and proving to the players that nothing is earned, but if Johnson was truly wowing everyone, I feel as though we would have heard about it by now.

On the other hand, this is the most highly touted player that has ever been to Evanston. Five-star recruits have only very rarely graced Ryan Field, at least while wearing purple. It’s fair to hope that he’ll outperform Thorson, even in his first year with NU. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have secretly high hopes for Johnson, so I’m not going to expect the entire fanbase to relax, but we really have no idea what’s coming.

Eli Karp

Northwestern fans are not used to the term five-star. It’s easy to see the hype when fans type Hunter Johnson into the search bar and they see “No. 1 QB in the 2017 class.” I think naturally the expectations are too high; the rational fans will understand that Johnson isn’t bringing six-foot-five, five-star running backs, wide receivers and linemen with him to Evanston.

I expect to see flashes of greatness from Johnson, but he is also learning a new playbook, and that takes time. It is very unlikely that his transition into the McCall offense is seamless, and there is a lot around the highly-touted product which he cannot control. I believe we will see mobility and accuracy at a level more consistent from Johnson than we did from Thorson, but Ryan Field isn’t welcoming an air raid this fall.

Noah Coffman

I’m gonna push back a bit on the negativity above. First of all, it was less than a year ago when Fitzgerald and co. kept us in the dark about Thorson’s status for as long as possible before eventually starting him against Purdue. It just doesn’t seem rational, unless something truly drastic occurs, for the ‘Cats not to tap the insanely talented Johnson as the starter for Week One. It also doesn’t make sense for Fitz to tip his hand and say that Johnson will definitively be starting, both with regards to his fellow quarterbacks and to opponents. So let’s keep those two things in mind.

Second, let’s not forget just how good Johnson is. Northwestern has taken in just two other five star recruits since 247 began their composite ratings: Brett Basanez in the early 2000s and Kyle Prater as a transfer from USC. Johnson was more highly rated than both, impressed everybody at Clemson, played well in limited in-game appearances, and was only forced out because of the arrival of arguably the best freshman quarterback of the decade. He’s just about as good as it gets for a young transfer quarterback.

And I’d be shocked if, regardless of the handcuffs placed on him by Northwestern’s offense, he didn’t continue to succeed. Will he be bombing deep balls at all times and throwing for 300 yards per game right away? Unlikely, but he should be able to make the easy plays look, well, easy, display enhanced mobility in and out of the pocket, and give the Wildcats the ability to make plays in the passing game all over the field. As a Northwestern fan, that’s really all you can ask for.