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Five Biggest Questions for Northwestern in 2020, No. 2: How will Northwestern’s starting quarterback improve this season?

The group looks to bounce back from a historically bad year.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Over the past few months, we’ve covered nearly every aspect of the upcoming Northwestern football season. This week, we continue our offseason coverage by looking at the five biggest questions surrounding Northwestern football in 2020.

At number two of these five ranked questions, we examine how the quarterback room will improve this season. We say “how will” as opposed to “will” because frankly it has to.

Prior to 2019, Northwestern enjoyed a period of stability from its quarterbacks dating back to the start of the Pat Fitzgerald era. C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa, Trevor Siemian and Clayton Thorson were all solid, multi-year starters during their respective careers, leading NU to nine bowl appearances in thirteen seasons. Northwestern, despite not being a name brand school for NFL talent, is the only Big Ten school to have three quarterbacks drafted in the past decade — Kafka in 2010, Siemian in 2015 and Thorson in 2019.

The prevailing opinion was that Hunter Johnson, the five-star signal caller who transferred from Clemson in 2018, would be Thorson’s successor and continue the recent run of quarterback success. And while Johnson did succeed Northwestern’s all-time leading passer, taking the first snaps to open the 2019 season, he didn’t succeed on the field, instead struggling mightily.

Johnson spent a good part of the 2019 season dealing with injuries and family health issues, completing under 50 percent of his passes for just 451 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in fairly limited action.

The rest of the quarterback room didn’t provide much of a boost after Johnson relinquished the starting duties following the late September loss to Wisconsin. Backup quarterback T.J. Green suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season and junior Aidan Smith tossed three touchdowns to nine interceptions.

Andrew Marty was the only quarterback who saw any sort of success, leading NU to its only Big Ten win last season. However, he finished the year with more rushing yards than passing yards and doesn’t seem to be a long-term solution.

The hope the quarterback room improves in 2020 largely lies in what happened during the offseason, and its success is dependent on the following three factors.

The addition of Peyton Ramsey

Which quarterback would you rather have?

Quarterback A threw for 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, with a 61.1 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 121.2 and averaged 6.5 yards per attempt. Quarterback B threw for 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, with a 68 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 147.7, and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.

The answer is quarterback B, right? Well, quarterback A is Clayton Thorson in 2018, the year Northwestern won the Big Ten West, and sheriff B is Peyton Ramsey at Indiana last season, who played in three fewer games.

As those stats indicate, Ramsey brings to Evanston a fairly high level of consistency and proficiency. He makes good reads, fairly accurate throws and doesn’t turn the ball over too often. This bodes well for Northwestern, a team that has found success over the past decade with mediocre offenses that can make just enough plays. As our resident film analyst Dan Olinger put it in his film study of Ramsey:

“All in all, Ramsey is not an electrifying presence that can lift those around him to greater achievement on the basis of his talent alone. However, he is fully capable of giving any competent team a chance.”

If you’re still not a believer in Ramsey as someone who can be good enough to start next season, watch his electrifying performance against Purdue at the end of last season, in which he threw for 337 yards and three touchdown passes while adding two more scores on the ground.

An improved offensive scheme

No one really knows what Northwestern’s offense will look like in 2020. There are question marks at nearly every skill position, and considering the extremely limited time there’s been to practice, team chemistry might pose an issue for a group that has already had its fair share of struggles.

However, as Dan wrote in his piece on Mike Bajakian-coached offenses, the newly hired offensive coordinator has a track record of raising the floor of his units. In his only season as Boston College’s OC, Bajakian improved the Eagles’ offense from 88th to 44th in SP+. The hope is that he can help Northwestern make a similar jump, which would simply mean lifting them comfortably into the top 100 offenses in the country.

The ‘Cats should have the tools and talent to make that leap. The offensive line is finally taking shape, Isaiah Bowser’s health isn’t a question and Peyton Ramsey should fit well into Bajakian’s system. As noted above, Ramsey completed an impressive 68 percent of his passes last season while averaging 8.2 yards per completion. Considering Bajakian’s past emphasis on making reads simpler for the quarterbacks, that type of accuracy will be vital to the team’s success.

Competitive depth

The Wildcats enter 2020 with a crowded quarterback room. Ramsey is the presumed starter based on his resume, but Hunter Johnson, TJ Green, Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty will fight for a spot on the two-deep — and as we found out last year, those might not be the only two guys who play. Northwestern sorely lacked this competitive depth at QB last season, and it would hopefully elevate the level of play at the position no matter who is starting.

Fitz has prioritized fixing the quarterback room, saying in November of last year: “It’s not hard, it’s not complicated, it’s painfully obvious. Those are all great kids. But they were not prepared for what it takes to be the starting quarterback, and it shows.”

It’s anyone’s guess if we’ll get to see whether or not that point of emphasis pays off this September (or October, or November, or February).