With quarterback Peyton Ramsey declaring for the NFL Draft, Northwestern has a clear hole under center. Following Clayton Thorson’s graduation after the 2018 season, hopes were high that Clemson transfer QB Hunter Johnson, a former top recruit, would be more than the answer to NU’s signal caller question. However, several factors led Johnson and a chorus of quarterbacks to struggle to a historically bad 2019, and thus Ramsey was brought in to plug the gap for a year.
Johnson is still around and now settled into NU with a new offensive coordinator, and if he were to win the job this summer that would certainly bring a jolt of excitement to the fan base that he can put it together. Right now, though, he’s more of an unknown and the Wildcats will be looking to the transfer portal for more depth if not a likely starter. Northwestern is also excited about incoming quarterback Brendan Sullivan out of Michigan, who arrived in Evanston this month as an early enrollee, but it would be very surprising to see a true freshman be the number one option. Here are some internal and potential transfer options for NU at quarterback in 2021.
If the Wildcats are unable to secure a transfer quarterback, Marty would certainly get a shot to win the starting job. The junior served as the primary backup to Ramsey this season and made appearances in four games. Despite his involvement in offensive packages, he never attempted a pass. He was used primarily as a rusher and even caught a pass against Michigan State. Fans know Marty best for his start at Illinois in 2019, when he rushed for 111 yards and two scores.
Marty’s unreliability as a passer is what holds him back. He has thrown a mere 22 passes in his collegiate career and has two passing touchdowns to two interceptions. The former three-star recruit came into NU as a pro-style quarterback, so the passing skills are there, they just have not been put on display.
Earning the starting role would shift the offensive scheme around towards a more option-based, ground-reliant offense. Marty loves to play physical, seen in his primary use as a rusher and his history as a guy willing to block and take hits. While this adds a unique dimension to a man under center, it also comes with clear risk.
With an increased expectation he can challenge for the starting role, it’s fair to expect Marty to develop as a passer. Given a higher number of first-team reps, he could come into his own in the offense rather than having to look over his shoulder after every snap, wondering if it’s his last.
A Johnson renaissance story would be inspiring but feels far from likely. The talent has never been an issue, it has all come down to translating the raw skills onto the field. Johnson is a former five-star recruit who transferred to the Wildcats from perennial powerhouse Clemson after competing with Trevor Lawrence and Kelly Bryant. Johnson is the highest-graded recruit the program has ever seen, but the jubilee soon fizzled out.
In his six appearances in 2019, four of them starts, the then-sophomore completed just 46% of his passes and threw only one touchdown to four interceptions. He often looked lost and misread his protections, thus frequently coming under pressure and making mistakes.
Again, Johnson was seen as a surefire prospect coming out of high school, so his immense struggles are not a result of simply not having the tools for the collegiate level. His poor decision making and inaccuracy ultimately led to his fall-off, but there is still a glimmer of hope. Sitting under an experienced, reliable quarterback such as Ramsey for a year and being able to study a more friendly offense more may go a long way in Johnson’s development.
Ryan Hilinski, transfer from South Carolina
As soon as Hilinski put his name in the portal, he became one of the biggest names on the transfer market. Rumors have circulated that there’s mutual interest between him and Northwestern, and landing him would be a boon to NU. They built a relationship in 2017 when NU offered him in his junior year of high school, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in Evanston in 2021.
Of all the transfer quarterbacks, Hilinski may be the most exciting. Rivals rated him the 45th-best player and third-best pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class, right behind Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz (yes, insert Mertz joke here). As a true freshman starting in the SEC, Hilinski threw a respectable 11 touchdowns to five interceptions on an offense without much help. It wasn’t enough to win the starting job in 2020 under new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who went with Collin Hill, a Colorado State transfer Bobo had coached in his time there.
247 Sports described Hilinksi as a “pure pocket passer” based on his ability to complete throws at every level of the field and make smart decisions. The likely walk-in starter would be an upgrade from Ramsey, at least in the long run, as he has a stronger arm and three years of eligibility remaining.