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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 1: Hunter Johnson

The final member of our list is the highest-profile Wildcat despite not even being named the starting quarterback yet.

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

o kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.

We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.

Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will factor heavily into the seasons success. For each entry, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

The top vote-getter (by a considerable margin) was the five-star quarterback transfer that has dominated the conversation all offseason.

Lia Assimakopoulos (Did not rank)

Hunter Johnson and his play this upcoming season will undeniably determine the team dynamic and the Wildcats’ successes (or failures). From the moment he committed to Northwestern about a year ago, Johnson has had to bear a huge weight. Fans instantly put the future of the team on his shoulders and determined this single player could be the one to change the course of history for the program – a lot of pressure to put on someone who has only thrown 27 passes in his collegiate career thus far.

With that being said, if anyone has capability to step up into such an influential role and fill Clayton Thorson’s shoes, it’s Johnson. His natural talent and athletic ability are extremely hard to teach and show the potential he has to produce this season. The combination of his speed and strong arm will be a major threat to defenses. Ultimately, he was a five-star recruit and former No. 1-ranked quarterback in his class for a reason, and both Fitzgerald and Dabo clearly saw something in him. So, while Fitz is neglecting to name the frontrunner for Thorson’s replacement, Johnson is certainly one of the most talented players to set foot on Northwestern’s campus and seems to give the team its best shot at success.

While Johnson’s innate talents have earned him such high praise and expectations from the fan base, his success is far from guaranteed, which is what makes him the most important player heading into the season. Not only will he need to fill the role of the most statistically successful quarterback in Northwestern history talent-wise, but he will also need to step up and be a leader for a team that has relied on Thorson for so many years. He will need to show immense maturity and leadership early on in the season if the offense wants to succeed.

Bottom line: Johnson has what it takes to be Northwestern’s next big thing, and now, it is just a matter of whether he shows up to play or not. The Wildcats are not prepared to lose Thorson if Johnson doesn’t step up, and fans already expect nothing but five-star play from the Clemson transfer. If he plays as expected, however, the sky’s the limit.

Noah Coffman (1)

As Lia discussed at length, Hunter Johnson has large shoes to fill and isn’t even assured a chance to do so. Both his talent level and the expectations surrounding him are incredibly high. But the reasons for my listing of Johnson as the most important player for Northwestern football in 2019 have little to do with those who have come before him.

Assuming that Johnson is, in fact, named the opening day starter, he will be the latest to helm an offense that has produced three NFL products from under center over the past decade. Despite that impressive professional hit rate, though, the offense has overall remained largely mired in mediocrity across that time span when it comes to production, especially in the passing game.

As Northwestern's defense has continued to impress over the past few seasons, the offense has often done enough to win, especially down the stretch in 2018. But to take the next step as a program and firmly enter the national conversation, the offense must compete on an equal level with their counterparts week in and week out. From what we know of him so far, Johnson certainly has the talent to lead a group that could do that.

Though it would probably require offensive coordinator Mick McCall to let him loose and might not even be possible in his first year as a starter, an offensive transformation would complete the program transformation that Pat Fitzgerald has slowly and quietly (on a national level at least) been building towards.

The sparkling new facilities, impressive recruiting classes, and consistent results on the field portend growth in the Northwestern program. If Johnson becomes what he has been billed as at the most important position on the field, that growth could continue into uncharted territory.

Did you agree with our list and the reasoning behind it? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!