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Can Northwestern’s offense take the next step?

For the Wildcats to get to the promised land, they may have to.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Around 8:00 p.m. CST on December 31, 2018, many Northwestern football fans were in crisis mode. Not only were the Wildcats being obliterated at halftime by Utah in the Holiday Bowl, but rumors continued to swirl regarding their head coach. The Green Bay Packers, led by former Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy, were searching for a new coach of their own, and Pat Fitzgerald’s name had been mentioned by many with knowledge of the process.

Fortunately, this marked the lowest point of the evening. Northwestern erased a 17 point deficit with an unbelievable 28-0 run to close things out.

The night only became better from there.

When speaking at the ensuing trophy ceremony, Fitz was asked about the Packers rumors. He, now famously, exclaimed “Hashtag Go ‘Cats, man. I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever.”

Roughly eight months later, Northwestern football fans impatiently wait for the start of the 2019 football season. The Wildcats are gaining national respect. The team’s 36 wins in the past four seasons ranks 14th among Power Five schools. They begin this season ranked 25th in the coaches poll.

After winning the Big Ten West and the Holiday Bowl in 2018, everyone inside the program believes the team is primed for greater achievements in 2019.

When speaking at Northwestern football’s media day, Fitzgerald stated, “The expectations externally are not even close to the expectations internally. We don’t hide from the fact that we want to win the Big Ten West, win the Big Ten, and earn our opportunity to go where we believe our program should be.”

If the Wildcats want to win a Big Ten Championship, the offense must improve from previous seasons. Over the past few years, the defense has often been tasked with carrying the team to wins. Since 2015, Northwestern has ranked #30, #17, #37, and #8 nationally in defensive S&P+, averaging out to 23rd over that span. Over the same four years, Northwestern’s offense has finished #94, #60, #75, and #122 in the same metric, averaging to a lowly 87th.

But it’s clear that despite recent inconsistencies and the loss of many key offensive players from last season, Northwestern’s coaches on that side of the ball are confident in their personnel.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for Northwestern is at quarterback. While it is widely believed that Hunter Johnson will be Northwestern’s starting quarterback in 2019, Northwestern’s coaching staff has remained adamant that the quarterback competition is truly a ‘competition’.

Andrew Marty, Jason Whittaker, Aidan Smith, T.J. Green and Johnson are the five quarterbacks who have been given a chance for the starting job. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mick McCall said after Thursday’s practice in Kenosha that “both of those guys are doing some things, the other two have been pretty good, but probably not as good as the other two, but they’re all still in it.”

It is nearly certain that T.J. Green and Hunter Johnson are the two quarterbacks that McCall has alluded to as being ahead of the others.

When speaking on T.J. Green’s strengths, Mick McCall told Inside NU that Green has “really taken his knowledge to another step… He’s ahead of every progression, he knows what he’s doing, I’m really proud of him on how hard he is working.” It is evident that, according to internal evaluation, Green has improved significantly, and with his knowledge of the playbook in the offense, seems to have a bit of a leg up based purely on experience.

Hunter Johnson, on the other hand, “physically has some really, really gifted tools,” according to McCall. But as the offensive coordinator later added, “he started to come on with the playbook, but he still at times will not be right in there.” Both Fitzgerald and McCall have referenced his role as the scout team quarterback during 2018 as a positive, but it may have negative effects as well: the five-star has only been able to fully work under their tutelage and within Northwestern’s offense over this offseason.

McCall went on to say that “they’re both doing a good job, they’re both helping each other… it is still a competition.”

When asked about a specific timeline in picking his starting QB, McCall said “yesterday would be great, but that’s not happening… at some point in time, we have to get one, it might be the day before the game… I don’t know what will happen, but I do know this: We’ll have a guy go out there, and we’ll have another guy behind him that is ready to go.”

While some fans may be concerned that neither quarterback has reportedly done enough to pull away from one another, Fitz added some further insight. When speaking to the media after practice on Monday, he stated ‘’In college football you have to have more than one [QB] ready, but we’ll see how this finishes up here in camp.”

Based on the emphasis both coaches have placed on the importance of each quarterback’s readiness would not be surprising if NU gave playing time to both Johnson and Green, at least to start the season.

Given that the former has three years of eligibility left and the seemingly clear talent advantage, a two-quarterback system of sorts would make sense even if Green wins the job to start the season, for the purposes of preparation for the future. On the other hand, if Johnson wins out, his competitor’s knowledge of the offense and Fitzgerald and McCall’s respect for the fifth-year walk-on may earn him some time as well.

Without the ability to report directly on practice thanks to a new Northwestern policy (as previously reported by Eric Edholm and Louie Vaccher), the discussion around the competition is necessarily limited. But from what Northwestern’s offensive braintrust has told us, any outcome is possible at this point.

Beyond quarterback, the offensive line also has questions to answer in 2019. New offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, though he has admitted that the loss of three quality starters will hurt, spoke highly of the two crucial returners, left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Jared Thomas.

Slater, who has been arguably the best, most consistent member of his position group over the past two seasons, earned praise from Anderson. “He has All-Big Ten potential, All-American potential… with his work ethic and smarts, if he continues to have a couple good years here, we’ll be seeing him on Sundays.”

Meanwhile, Anderson sees Thomas as an extension of himself on the field. He was impressed by the experienced fifth-year senior’s ability to “articulate what he wants to get across to the offensive line,” adding, “When you have a player who is on the same wavelength as the coach, it’s like having a coach on the field. It’s like having a coach when you’re not around because you know the message is being sent the right way.”

Beyond Slater and Thomas, Northwestern will have new starters at right tackle, right guard, and left guard. It appears, however, that NU has already found solid starters at two of the spots, with Anderson stating that the “key position up in the air is right guard.”

While he declined to relay who the other two new starters will be, Anderson went out of his way to praise veteran guard Nik Urban’s leadership skills. Urban seemed to be a preseason leader in the competition thanks to his experience with filling in for an injured JB Butler in 2018. When it comes to right tackle, Gunnar Vogel is the only apparent competitor with any experience in the role.

Northwestern plays six ranked opponents in its first seven games. The tough schedule is not exactly ideal for a developing offense which is under pressure to produce. The pressure will certainly be on the leaders at the two most vulnerable positions, quarterback and offensive line, to prepare themselves for significant game action as quickly as possible.

While many are quick to count Northwestern and its tough schedule out, the team, and of course Fitzgerald, seem excited by the daunting task, which places them in a familiar underdog position. After all, when they travel to Palo Alto in a little over a week, Stanford will almost certainly be favored by about a touchdown.

With questions surrounding their changing offense, people are still underestimating Northwestern. That’s just the way the ‘Cats like it.