Well, we certainly did not see that one coming.
Not only did nearly every single Inside NU writer rank Ryan Hilinski as the most important player on Northwestern’s football roster in 2021, but all of us (besides Lia, who hedged) thought he would be the starter.
Of course, when it comes to Northwestern football, we should have expected the unexpected; and Hunter Johnson being named the starter multiple weeks in advance of the opener against MSU, something that Fitz has not done since Clayton Thorson was entrenched as NU’s starter prior to his senior season, certainly qualifies as the unexpected.
And to be honest, I am far more pessimistic regarding the optics of Fitzgerald naming Hunter Johnson this year’s starter than the average NU journalist.
But, that is a story for another day.
Today, I will break down the factors that led to HJ being named the starter.
Let’s start with his competition:
The million dollar question is whether Hunter Johnson blew Ryan Hilinski away or whether Ryan Hilinski sank himself.
I lean towards the latter.
On December 3rd, 2019, Ryan Hilinski underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and ACL in his left knee. Looking through both Fitz and Hilinski’s press conferences, I have struggled to find anything suggestive of Hilinski still rehabbing from the injury. Still, this is Fitz we are talking about, and if Hilinski has been rehabbing from the injury through the spring and into training camp, I would expect Fitz to be coy about it.
If it is the case that Hilinski is still adjusting to the new normal following his knee injury, HJ had a clear leg up.
The next factor that led to HJ being named is his pure talent. On August 9th, when speaking to the media, HJ said he “throws a great ball” and he’s been “able to use his feet more in the spring and make plays.” We all know about his arm ability. There is a reason he was a five-star recruit and began his collegiate career at Clemson. We also know a bit about his running ability. Though his season in 2019 was widely considered a failure, he did flash his ability to run on occasion. He’s a former high school track star, and I anticipate Mike Bajakian plans on calling a lot of designed plays to get Hunter Johnson out in space so that he does not have to process the entire field sitting in the pocket, can set his feet and fire or take off and run.
With that being said, it does appear that Johnson has taken great strides in learning the playbook. According to Bajakian, who spoke with the media a week ago, Johnson is “much more proficient mentally, and obviously even physically, in what we’re asking him to do mechanically” than he has been in seasons past. One of the biggest knocks on Johnson his first year at NU was his lack of a grasp on the playbook. It appears he has overcome that learning curve as evidenced by Ryan Hilinski saying HJ has “been great with helping me learn the playbook” back in the spring.
Finally, Hunter Johnson has fought through a lot of adversity up to this point. Perhaps, no one put it better than Fitz:
“We came out of spring and this was where we were. We felt like if it was the same way after two weeks, let’s roll. He’s just battle-scarred. He’s been through a lot.”
After being beaten out by Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, Johnson transferred to NU where he had a disastrous first season at NU. It was also revealed in the midst of the 2019 season that Johnson’s mother, Shana, was fighting breast cancer.
Beyond that, Johnson had to sit out all of last season as Peyton Ramsey led NU back to the Big Ten Championship. While Johnson’s competition, Ryan Hilinski, has undoubtedly faced adversity as well, Johnson should be well-equipped for the job and have a chip on his shoulder.
Just the way Fitz likes it.