Peyton Ramsey found the perfect place at the perfect time. A football program with an established, winning tradition in the 21st century, coming off a season during which they produced arguably the worst non-triple option passing offense on this side of the millennia. Northwestern was angry, full of seniors along both sides of the ball and eager to prove they were more like the 2018 Big Ten West championship team than the 2019 squad that was conference fodder.
All they needed was a quarterback who was ready. Ramsey might not have been the most dynamic or eye-popping passer in the country, but he knew exactly what he was walking into and needed little to no time to properly acquit himself for the task at hand.
But now Ramsey is gone, as are a number of key pieces from the storybook 2020 season. The receiver room is basically starting over from scratch, the offensive line has two starters to play and the only two guys along the front seven who produced in purple jerseys this past season are Adetomiwa Adebawore and Chris Bergin. One might take a step back, glance at the roster from a bird’s eye view, and conclude that a step back could be in store for the ‘Cats in 2021.
However, while Northwestern isn’t a reload over rebuild program like their conference championship counterpart in Ohio State, they’ve been able to workshop and develop solutions along the position groups whenever needed under Pat Fitzgerald. The linebacking core lacks in experience, but it’s Fitz — a solution shouldn’t be too far away. The one position that can’t be simply solved through creative coaching and toughness is quarterback.
That’s why Ryan Hilinski was brought in. Northwestern learned during that dreadful 3-9 campaign that spending the year trying to solve that position is an arduous process filled with mistakes and losses. They turned to (and they very well still could come autumn) both Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson. Both should, in theory, be more game-ready than they were as sophomores. However, in their collegiate careers combined they’ve thrown only 157 passes per CFB Reference, whereas Hilinski tossed a whopping 406 passes during his lone season as a starter at South Carolina. Even though he just stepped in the building, NU can be most confident in knowing what they have in Hilinski over any of their other options.
A lot depends on what happens come fall. If Hilinski struggles and loses the starting spot and Northwestern only manages to be a .500 team that’s again defense-dependent, hitting the recruiting trail and looking for a long term solution for the program is the way to go. However, if Hilinski wins that job early on, keeps NU afloat with something around an 8-4 or 9-3 record and can return to Evanston as a senior to do it again, it begs the question — should the ‘Cats be a transfer quarterback oasis in the college football landscape?
It makes sense as a heuristic method on the surface. Northwestern best recruits, develops and coaches its defense, the offensive line and running backs. Even during down years like 2019, the defense graded out fairly well by most metrics, and the run game offered bright spots with some 100-yard performances and blocking domination from the likes of Rashawn Slater. But the passing game fell below the Mendoza line of competence, and that was enough to sink the whole ship.
What better strategy than to keep hitting up the transfer portal each year and grab a quarterback who has already proven he sits above that line? Northwestern has proven that at nearly every other position group they can be consistently at or above Big Ten average. Wide receivers, while important, are more thought of as plug-and-play pieces in modern football, and unless that position room is completely decrepit, lacking a star wideout likely won’t kill your team. That quarterback just has to be acceptable, and taking in transfers from programs of similar stature that have already produced in a full collegiate season is a safeguard against that catastrophic scenario.
Now two rather obvious counter-arguments are present to the transfer QB mantra:
1) Hunter Johnson was also a transfer quarterback, and yet his time in Evanston (including the 2019 season that was supposed to be his) has been a disaster. That’s all true, however, that season of proof at the collegiate level was missing with Johnson. Yes, he was a heralded five-star recruit that first spent a year at Clemson before his departure, but Northwestern was still trying their hand at developing something they didn’t yet understand in him. When Ramsey came in for the 2020 season, NU understood everything about him that was necessary for their success.
Over a full career at Indiana, Ramsey proved he was a trustworthy decision maker with acceptable but not extraordinary physical abilities when it came to throwing and running the football. Johnson had yet to prove anything outside of the high school realm, and unfortunately it just hasn’t worked out for him or the team. Getting a known commodity is less of a risk than banking on the team’s internal development to turn a CFB newbie into a star.
2) Attacking the quarterback position comes pretty close to admitting that there is a ceiling on Northwestern football. That’s the absolute last thing someone like Fitz and more ardent ‘Cats supporters want. The head coach always talks about taking that next step, not just making the Big Ten Championship and competing, but actually snatching the title from a team like the Buckeyes and proving that Northwestern can be a national football powerhouse.
Simply brining in transfer after transfer to man the QB position and ensure the team against cataclysmic downfalls sounds nice, but perhaps the only way to ascend past the current cap on the program’s success is to take a risk on a young guy out of high school, let him take his lumps early and have him develop into a gunslinging star. That takes a lot of belief in one’s own system, culture and recruiting ability, but Fitz and Co. would never have taken what was once the laughingstock team of college football this far if they didn’t believe in their own capabilities.
So should this, as the title states, be the new way forward for Northwestern? I’m inclined to believe that, given a consistent line of plug-and-play guys like Hilinski and Ramsey from around the country might be able to keep this team above a .667 win percentage for each of the next five years, and at the very least shouldn’t let them drop to a losing record.
However, I very much understand both the fear that Ramsey might have been a “in the right place at the right time” occurrence, and the idea that NU football shouldn’t settle for just being respectable.
Whatever the answer is, chances are that Hilinski will get the opportunity to start this fall and either provide support in favor or against either side in the argument, and that is something that every ‘Cats fan should be looking forward to.