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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 1 Ryan Hilinski

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At last, the South Carolina product that everyone has been talking about this offseason.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2021. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy and created a list that has already caused plenty of disagreement.

The list’s criteria simply consisted of players we believe to be the most important to Northwestern football in 2021. However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.

Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.

Ryan Hilinski

Mac Stone (4)

It’s quite obvious I’m in the minority here, and I’m perfectly okay with that. I know Hilinski has talent, and I know quarterback tends to be one of, if not the, most important position on the football field.

But something just felt wrong about putting him higher.

I went pretty unorthodox with my rankings. Peter Skoronski took the top spot for me, and the only other offensive players present were Cam Porter at three and Hilinski at four. Simply put, I think there are too many question marks surrounding Hilinski for him to be the single most important player for Northwestern. He could get there later this season, but I can see the ‘Cats playing a run-heavy offense and relying a lot on their defense in 2021.

Overall, I’m hesitant on Hilinski. Not because of his lack of talent, but because of how he may adjust to playing in the Big Ten. Sure, he’s coming from the best conference in college football, but he only played in two games in 2020 and has a history of injuries. I think Northwestern will play it safe with Hilinski in 2021, at least early in the year, which ultimately reduces his importance to the team in my eyes.

Daniel Olinger (1)

Mac, you’re a good friend, a fantastic writer and very intelligent guy.

However, you’re objectively wrong in ranking Hilinski behind three other players in terms of importance.

You, I or even Nathan Peterman could be the starting quarterback Pat Fitzgerald has in mind for week one against Michigan State, and that would make all three of us the most important player for Northwestern’s 2021 season. Quarterback is inherently the most important position, and the one that determines success more than any of the other 21 players on the field.

If Hilinski posts a Peyton Ramsey-esque season, the ‘Cats probably trudge toward an 8-4 or 9-3 season and maintain top five status within the conference. If Hilinski turns out to be the next big thing and a contender for offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, he can elevate Northwestern’s usual structure for competency to even greater heights and lead the team to its third conference title game appearance in four years.

But if Hilinski flames out and the other options in the position room can’t step up behind him, a losing season is more than in the cards for a Northwestern team that has made its living for years as a close game survivor. Brandon Joseph, Peter Skoronski or Cam Porter performing below expectations would hurt, but a quarterback playing above his head will supersede all of that, while their own achievements can’t make up for a signal caller who can’t power an otherwise capable offense.

In recent history, the only teams that could overcome truly subpar quarterback play were the giants of the industry in Ohio State and Alabama, who can simply run the ball down all their opponents’ throats with their combinations of outlier great running backs and offensive lines composed of five Day 1 and Day 2 NFL Draft picks. Even then, poor quarterback play for the Buckeyes or the Crimson Tide can hold the teams back from championship level success.

Of course, Fitzgerald could still surprise us all and name Hunter Johnson or even Andrew Marty as the week one starter, but the point remains true that whoever takes most of the snaps at quarterback for the ‘Cats in 2021 will be their most important player.