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2021 Northwestern football position previews: Quarterbacks

There are big shoes to fill at the helm of the offense.



Returners with experience at NU: Andrew Marty (Sr.), Hunter Johnson (Sr.)

Key losses: Peyton Ramsey (NFL free agent), TJ Green (graduation)

Returners: Carl Richardson (So.), Zac Krause (R-So.)

Newcomers: Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina transfer), Brendan Sullivan (Fr.)

Following a dismal 2019 campaign that featured injuries, inconsistency and general turmoil at the quarterback position, there were a lot of question marks about who would lead the Northwestern offense in the fall of 2020. Enter Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey, who won the starting job to begin the shortened 2020 season and never looked back. Ramsey was no superstar, but he brought poise and competence back to the position, in addition to a propensity for making timely plays. He led Northwestern to a Big Ten West title and a Citrus Bowl victory, finishing his one and only season with the ‘Cats as a consensus third team All-Big Ten selection.

Looking ahead to this year, there is not much clarity surrounding who will take the reins from Ramsey within a crowded quarterback room. The frontrunner seems to be South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, as he holds the most collegiate experience out of any of the eight in the group. However, there are a host of other options that could contend for the starting job this offseason. Among those include Andrew Marty, a dual-threat senior who served as the backup to Ramsey last year, and Hunter Johnson, the former five-star transfer from Clemson who has largely struggled in his limited playing time.

No matter who is ultimately chosen as the day one starter, the upcoming season will serve as an important test for offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian. Northwestern has an opportunity to solidify itself as a perennial Big Ten West contender but, as we have seen just two years prior, it can only do so with a baseline level of competent play from whoever mans the quarterback position.

Key Player:

Ryan Hilinski

The setting of Hilinski’s arrival is reminiscent of Hunter Johnson’s three years prior. A highly touted transfer from the state of South Carolina coming during a period of transition at quarterback, but there is one key difference — Hilinski’s skills have already been showcased at the Power Five level. In what should be a wide-open competition for the starting position during the offseason, Hilinski’s proven successes and playing experience at the other USC sets him apart from the rest of the room. During his freshman year with the Gamecocks, the Orange, California, native threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns, which included this impressive 324-yard passing performance against Alabama.

From those clips, it is easy to see why Hilinski was so highly rated coming out of high school. He possesses the abilities to make any throw, is calm under pressure and has good size at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. After being beaten out for the starting role at South Carolina in 2020, Hilinski has an opportunity to prove himself in the Big Ten.

Of course, it is too early to say that the starting job is his, but it certainly seems as though it is Hilinski’s to lose. Given his experience and skillset, he seems like he has the tools and talent to take over the reins at the helm of Northwestern’s offense.

Big Question:

How will the quarterbacks fit into Bajakian’s offense?

In Mike Bajakian’s first season as Northwestern’s offensive coordinator, he developed a scheme that highlighted Ramsey’s strengths well. Play calls involving short passes, rollouts to the right and the occasional QB option all complemented the signal caller’s short-range accuracy and quick decision-making.

The three quarterbacks that are likely to compete for the starting role in 2021 each have vastly different play styles. Hilinski is a pure pocket passer who is not very mobile, while Marty is the complete opposite, as he is a dual-threat option who has shown that he is not afraid to run into the teeth of opposing defenses. Johnson is a mix of the two, as he is a talented passer who can turn on the jets and scramble when necessary.

Regardless of who ends up the starter, Bajakian will need to make the necessary tweaks to the playbook in order to tailor it to their strengths, just like he did with Ramsey in 2020.

Depth Chart

2021 QB Depth Chart

Depth Chart Player
Depth Chart Player
1st String Ryan Hilinski
2nd String Andrew Marty
3rd String Hunter Johnson