Last year was an anomaly for Northwestern at the quarterback position. Dating as far back as 1999, when Randy Walker took over the program reins and anointed Zak Kustok as his starter, the Wildcats have received stable play from their signal callers.
With the likes of Kustok, Brett Basanez, CJ Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa, Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian and most recently Clayton Thorson, QB controversies in Evanston have become scarce.
Yet, as Northwestern embarks upon a true quarterback competition for the second straight season, I expect the position’s play to differ from last season. With added experience, a new offensive coordinator, and a grad transfer addition, Northwestern’s production at quarterback in 2020 should reflect the precedent that has established throughout the early part of the century.
Since Pat Fitzgerald played at NU, there has never been a more intriguing and unique group of field generals than the bunch involved in the 2020 QB competition.
Everyone entered the 2019 season expecting Hunter Johnson to run out of the visitor’s tunnel in Palo Alto and succeed Thorson as NU’s starting quarterback for the next three seasons. Things didn’t go as planned.
Johnson encountered a multitude of factors outside of his control that ultimately derailed his success last season, including a litany of injuries to his teammates, a rather questionable offensive scheme, and most pressing, a serious health issue involving his mother. With that said, there aren’t many variations of last season that could have resulted in a more underwhelming and disappointing start to Johnson’s NU tenure.
If there were a “sleeper,” to win the starting QB job, it’d have to be the former Clemson transfer. Although respected former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt infamously tweeted in early May that Johnson was one of two seniors among his top 50 senior prospects for the 2021 NFL draft, I, along with most NU fans, would be surprised if he secures even the Northwestern starting job.
I've taken an early look at the top SENIOR prospects for the 2021 NFL draft. I only have two quarterbacks among my top 50 (remember, this is seniors only):— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) May 4, 2020
Sam Ehlinger, Texas
Hunter Johnson, Northwestern
As anyone around the program will tell you, Johnson has all the talent in the world. But, after an adversity-filled season with NU, one may argue that the best move for Johnson’s career may entail taking next season to develop and process Bajakian’s playbook to set himself up for success next year. It may not be wise to count him out in this battle, but the initial hype and promise that surrounded Johnson following his arrival on campus has run its course.
If Johnson’s football career does indeed resurrect in Evanston, a large part of that will be due to new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
More than anything, “Coach Jake” hopes to institute an up-tempo offense at Northwestern. Last season, when Bajakian served as the offensive coordinator at Boston College, running back AJ Dillon received the third most carries nationally and finished with the sixth most rushing yards. I am not sure where the intersection of an up-tempo and run-heavy offensive scheme lies for NU, but we can expect Bajakian to find some middle ground between the two in 2020.
Before even coaching in his first game at Northwestern, one could make the case Bajakian has already started winning. Earlier this year, he helped NU land quarterback Peyton Ramsey from Indiana, who is the early favorite to earn the first snaps.
The former Hoosier has experience fighting for the starting job. He spent all of last season competing against current Indiana quarterback, Michael Penix Jr. Ramsey held his own last season, passing for over 2,500 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. If it weren’t for a host of injuries, though, Penix would have received a majority of the snaps at QB, but that isn’t not a knock on Ramsey. Penix is the real deal.
Through Ramsey’s 23 career starts, 42 career touchdowns, and 6,000+ career passing yards, NU fans can bank on him to provide NU with one thing it lacked all of last season: competent quarterback play. Ramsey isn’t going to be a world-beater, but as Bajakian said in his Zoom press conference last week, he “fits Northwestern’s profile. He’s tough, smart, athletic, and he’s played a lot of football and won a lot of football games.” When has Northwestern ever won by being a world-beater? It wins by being competent.
After Ramsey, the depth chart could go in any direction. There’s Andrew Marty, the dark-horse candidate to win the starting QB job. In his first career start against Illinois last season, Marty went 6-for-10 for 55 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. His bread and butter came on the ground, though, as he led the Wildcats to victory by dashing the Illini 30 times for 111 yards. The redshirt junior also went 8-of-10 for 95 yards with a passing touchdown while chipping in 52 rushing yards and two rushing scores in his only other meaningful snaps last season, against Minnesota.
It seems unlikely that Marty possesses the passing skills to lead a Big Ten offense this season. But his team-first, win-at-any-cost mentality elevates his status among both his teammates and coaches. It appears Marty’s strong leadership approach carried over from the end of last season as Ramsey stated last week that both Marty and T.J. Green have been integral leaders in player-meetings thus far. Even if Marty does not win the starting position, I would be surprised if he did not see any playing time, specifically in short-yardage situations.
T.J. Green is the last member of NU’s QB room with legitimate starter aspirations. The son of former Chiefs QB Trent Green and cousin of former NU and current Notre Dame wideout Bennett Skowronek, is a sixth-year player. Two seasons ago, Green gained prominence at NU for his role relieving Thorson multiple possessions a game early in the season due to Thorson’s rehab from ACL surgery.
Green suffered a season-ending foot injury in the midst of a promising third quarter drive in the opener against Stanford. With the addition of Ramsey, Green is well-suited for the number two quarterback job due to his familiarity with the team, but his previous advantage of knowing Mick McCall’s playbook inside and out is now moot. The Kansas City native may press for the number one job in his last hurrah at NU, but it is unclear whether he has the talent to win it.
Beyond Green, there’s Aidan Smith, who started six games (going 1-5) and appeared in eight games last year. The Fort Wayne native averaged 104 passing yards per game and rushed for over 200 yards while tossing three touchdowns and nine interceptions.
After finishing the 2019 campaign a lowly 3-9, it seems unlikely for Northwestern to regress further in 2020. In order to improve, though, NU will need better production from its quarterbacks. While NU’s hopes to contend for a Big Ten Championship may rest above average play from the game’s most important position, even average QB play paired with an experienced defensive unit should lead the Wildcats back to a bowl game.