While not the most devastating news of the day — that distinction belongs to the announcement that running back Cam Porter will miss the entirety of the fall season with a lower body injury — the most shocking information that was dropped during head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Tuesday press conference was that Hunter Johnson, not Ryan Hilinski, will be the Wildcats’ week one starter when they kick off the season on September 3 against Michigan State.
Once the much anticipated starter for the 2019 season, Johnson had fallen out of favor and the starting role due to tumultuous circumstances both on and off the field. In 2020 he did not throw a single pass, spending the entire nine-game season on the bench behind Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey.
It was expected by nearly everybody that he would see a similar fate in 2021 given the incoming arrival of Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina, as it’s generally understood that an accomplished starter such as he would only transfer to another school should they be given at least some gesture of assurance that that the starting job is their’s to lose.
Fitzgerald has maintained all offseason that it was an open competition and that he had yet to decide who would be his starting quarterback, and it appears that in this situation he was a man of his word.
"I don't think there was any epiphany, we took a look at the metrics and we took a look at where things were at and we made a decision on who we think can win us a Big Ten championship," Fitz said on HJ being the starter.— Inside NU (@insidenu) August 17, 2021
Time will tell if Johnson really is the player that can win the Fitzgerald and Co. the Big Ten title, though it is fair to mention that given the highly competitive nature of this position battle, it’s possible that Johnson’s status as starter could change should he not live up the level of play the coaching staff is expecting from him.
He steps in to run what is now an offense full of uncertainties, fielding no receivers that caught even 10 passes last season while wearing Wildcat uniforms, and more importantly having just loss the bellwether back that was projected to bolster the offense as a whole. The offensive line should hold steady, but all in all, Johnson is going to need to put forth a better product on the field than he did back as a sophomore in 2019 for the ‘Cats to avoid another precipitous decline.