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Hunter’s Heaves, the debut: Growth

Though his stat line may not say so, Northwestern’s quarterback has taken strides even over his first two starts.

UNLV v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Clayton Thorson graduated and thus so did Thorson’s Throws. But we’re back with a new edition of the same premise, this time charting every one of Hunter Johnson’s pass attempts. If you want to examine in further detail what looks so far to be a talented but - judging by the box score - inaccurate arm, tune in to Hunter’s Heaves each week.

Starting with the UNLV game, here’s what we noticed:

Much like against Stanford in the season’s opener, Johnson didn’t throw the ball all that much. The Northwestern coaching staff appears content to limit its quarterback’s involvement, calling more run plays than pass attempts in each of the first two games. Johnson threw the ball just 25 times against UNLV and completed just 12 of those passes for 165 yards, his first touchdown of the season and a pick.

Here is the full statistical breakdown (by air yards and completion rate), along with our play-by-play:

Hunter Johnson vs. UNLV

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 1 3 50 16.7 50 1 0
20 - 29 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
10 - 19 5 7 80 11.4 16 0 0
0 - 9 6 14 35 2.5 5.8 0 0
Totals: 12 25 165 6.6 13.75 1 1

While the box score numbers don’t look great, as the film and our statistical breakdown (format courtesy of Davis Rich) can each tell you, Johnson showed plenty of promise. Though the total amount of throws allows for only a small sample size, when the Clemson transfer attempted to matriculate the ball down the field, his five-star talent began to show.

In 11 pass attempts during which the ball traveled double-digit yards in the air, Johnson was 6-11 for 130 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. Said interception was admittedly ghastly, as Johnson ended what was a promising drive by trying to force it into a bracketed Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and compounded the mistake by severely underthrowing him:

But despite that early mistake, Johnson got going quickly, displaying plenty of pinpoint accuracy on longer passes. He even started to display his touch on the first couple of drives, showcasing his ability to fit the ball into a tight window on this medium-deep fourth down throw (covering 16 air yards) to Kyric McGowan:

To close out the second drive of the game, on third and goal from the UNLV 15, he attempted to try to go back to McGowan on a back-shoulder pass in the front corner of the end zone. Though the ball was delivered beautifully and directly on the money, the UNLV defender was able to distract McGowan enough to break up a pass he still had a chance to catch. After the disastrous interception, the final drives of the half included a few successful RPOs, including a potential touchdown that was called back due to ineligible man downfield.

Then, in the second half, Mick McCall finally let Johnson take some shots.

Right out of the gates, on Northwestern’s fifth third quarter play from scrimmage, he went after McGowan deep, dropping a gorgeous pass (traveling 39 yards in the air) right in the bucket. His receiver dropped it. But after the ensuing punt, the Wildcats got right back to it, and struck gold immediately on a connection with JJ Jefferson:

Perfect pump fake, perfect route, perfect throw, 50-yard touchdown. Northwestern was up 23-14, and Johnson and co. seemed to finally, after six quarters of play, be rolling. From there, however, McCall dialed up just four more passes, though they did include another deep shot to Jefferson. This time, Johnson found a much smaller window, but despite having his hands around the ball the true sophomore couldn’t haul it in.

Despite the ‘Cats going away from the pass down the stretch, and a couple of deep passes being dropped, enough was certainly present in the UNLV matchup to display Johnson’s ability. With two weeks to work exclusively with his new number one quarterback, Mick McCall drastically opened up the playbook, and it showed through our full-season breakdown.

Hunter Johnson 2019

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 1 3 50 16.7 50 1 0
20 - 29 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
10 - 19 6 10 97 9.7 16.16666667 0 0
0 - 9 11 28 72 2.571428571 6.5 0 2
Totals: 18 42 219 5.214285714 12.16666667 1 3

Against Stanford, Johnson tried just three passes (out of 17 total) that traveled double digit yards in the air, and the only one that went for more than 13 was really a throwaway. He also took a deep shot to Skowrownek that drew a DPI, but doesn’t officially show up in the stats. Overall, the limited offense forced him into a lot of tight coverage situations, whereas airing the ball out against the Rebels successfully spread the field.

Not all was rosy for Johnson against UNLV. He still overthrew a couple of receivers on intermediate routes, and he ran into a sack thanks to a seeming lack of pocket awareness in the game’s first drive. Clearly, he remains raw, and the 2019 season will certainly be a process.

But at the same time, he consistently improved as the game went along and the playbook opened up. Johnson can absolutely make all of the throws, and when you pair that with an impressive ability to use his feet, he becomes a nightmare for opposing defenses.

If the two-week progression we’ve seen so far continues, expect that nightmare to come to pass (at least in part) against Michigan State.

Disclaimer: We did not have access to cuttable film of the entire UNLV game, so on some important plays (like the drops) all we can do is describe. With the upcoming games being broadcast on ABC, that should not continue to prove a problem.