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Column: What to take away from Pat Fitzgerald announcing his starting QB weeks in advance of the opener

An unusual change of pace from a coach that likes to keep his decisions close to the vest.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

At yesterday’s press conference for the Northwestern football team, Pat Fitzgerald was asked which factors went into publicly announcing Hunter Johnson as the starting QB weeks before the season opener.

“I was just talking to my boys one night at dinner and they asked me who the starting QB was and I said ‘Hunter,’ so the next day I announced it,” Fitzgerald announced to the media this Wednesday. “I figured I couldn’t trust two high schoolers and a seventh grader.”

He continued, saying, “In the past we’ve announced it earlier, [and] sometimes we’ve announced it coming out of spring ball. It just depends when the decision has been made and then projected on kind of where we need to go as a team, so from that standpoint, that’s what went into it.”

Furthermore, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was able to provide a bit of clarity regarding the benefits of announcing the starting QB earlier.

“It gives the starting QB and the starting receivers a better opportunity to develop that rapport that is necessary, the chemistry on the field that is necessary to have success,” said Bajakian.

Still, Fitz and Bajakian could have announced the starter to the team weeks in advance of the opener and still expected the starter to remain a secret up until kickoff, despite Fitz’s lack of trust in his own children.

There’s two different trains of thought here as to why Fitz released the starting QB decision early relative to years past, the first being that Johnson was truly blowing away his competition in Ryan Hilinski and Andrew Marty.

In this scenario, Fitz and Bajakian felt they had nothing to lose by telling the entire college football world that Johnson was their guy, so they went ahead and gave a bit of positive news on the day star running back Cam Porter and reserve offensive lineman Zachary Franks were announced out for the season.

Bajakian did what he could to bolster that sentiment, praising HJ for his quick processing on the field.

“One of the things he is doing really well right not is that he (Hunter Johnson) is being very decisive,” said Bajakian. “He’s getting rid of the ball on time and with rhythm.”

Here’s why I, personally, am not buying the above sentiment that Johnson transformed into a superstar during the offseason — On August 9th, Pat Fitzgerald said the following when asked about the timing of the starting QB announcement:

“It’ll be done when it’s done and I am not gonna put a timetable on it. Yeah, of course, I wish it was done in spring ball, but no one really separated themselves. And I am not saying that as a negative. The whole group has improved and gotten better and that’s a credit to them , so we’ll see how it unfolds.”

Then, when asked whether it excites him to come in with a competition or whether it makes him more nervous heading into fall camp without having his quarterback position figured out, Fitz replied that he’d, “much rather have an All-Big Ten guy coming back, and yeah, I’ll leave it at that.”

If only Peyton Ramsey exercised his extra year of eligibility.

“[We’re] a better-looking team, we’re a stronger team, and we’re a more explosive, athletic team than we were last year,” said Fitzgerald during the presser earlier this month. “Now we’ve gotta solidify the quarterback and then we’ve gotta go out and make it happen.”

All in all, Fitz did not do a whole lot in his August 9th presser to instill confidence that Johnson has been blowing away the rest of the QB competition. So unless Hunter Johnson has recently played the best football of his life the past two weeks, Fitz’s timing in announcing the QB decision becomes even more mysterious.

In my eyes, the more likely explanation is option B, where Fitz believes that he can instill some type of confidence, and possibly even elevate Johnson’s play, by announcing the senior as the starter several weeks in advance, perhaps learning from his mistakes back in 2019.

When asked whether it raises his confidence to be publicly named the starting QB weeks before the season, Johnson said that it really didn’t make that much of a difference, and that he had been through it at this point, so that he knew what to expect going into camp.

Still, back in 2019, Johnson was not publicly announced as the starter until the opening kickoff at Stanford.

Johnson finished 6-for-17 on pass attempts for 55 yards and two interceptions during his Northwestern debut, as T.J. Green filled in for him mid-game before suffering a season-ending injury.

There was a lack of trust between Fitz and his quarterbacks, evidenced by substituting Green into the game at such an early juncture.

Johnson may not admit it, but he has to feel some sense of stability and satisfaction from Fitz being willing to declare him as his starter ahead of the matchup with Michigan State.

Will that elevate Johnson’s play? I’m not sure.

But if Johnson having an extra sense of security knowing that Hilinski and Marty will not enter the game as soon as he makes a mistake leads to the former five-star recruit playing more like the prospect many a scout fell in love with, then Fitz may have to forever ditch his usual schtik of making us all wait to hear who suits up as Northwestern’s QB in week one.