Hunter Johnson was the wunderkind.
Even growing up in the football-rich state of Indiana, Johnson stood out from everyone else. He could throw passes with both zip and touch at an early age, earning the starting quarterback job on his high school’s varsity football team as a freshman. As a member of an Indiana state finalist 4x400 meter relay team, Johnson also possessed enough speed to keep his game on the field from being one-dimensional. His play at Brownsburg High School — where he set school records with 6,657 passing yards and 69 touchdowns as a four-year starter — garnered him a comparison from his head coach, John Hart, that bears quite a bit of weight in the Hoosier State.
“If you ever see Peyton Manning work in practice, it’s incredible. [Hunter] is that way. We were in the weight room one time and some kids were giving him a hard time about his power clean, and he steps up and power cleans 275 [pounds] and just walks away,” Hart said. “He’s gifted athletically, but he also has that dry sense of humor that Peyton has. He’s pretty quiet and no-nonsense, but he can pull off some pretty good zingers.”
He wasn’t just a local sensation, though. At the prestigious Elite 11 camp, where some of the nation’s top high school QBs exhibit and sharpen their skills every year, Johnson was voted by his peers the quarterback they’d most like to build a college program around. He won the MVP Award at the 2017 Army All-American Game, where he threw passes to future NFL players Henry Ruggs III and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
By the end of his senior season, he was ESPN’s top pro-style QB in the 2017 recruiting class. Just about every major team in college football — from Alabama to Notre Dame — sought his talents. In the end, though, Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers won Johnson over, and he packed his bags and headed to South Carolina in January 2017.
He saw the field sparingly in his first year with the Tigers, but Johnson performed well in his limited time on the field as a backup, throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 167.6 as a true freshman. However, with Trevor Lawrence slated to arrive in Clemson the following season, Johnson’s plans of succeeding Kelly Bryant as the next signal caller for the reigning national champs were upended. The quiet, collected passer announced in June 2018 that he would transfer to Northwestern, the school his brother, Cole, played for as a preferred walk-on from 2013 to 2016.
Johnson would sit out during Northwestern’s 2018 Big Ten title game run, as was the requirement for college transfers at the time. But his time was coming and everybody knew it, his former head coach at Clemson included.
“He’s gonna be a kid that is going to play this game a long time,” Swinney said upon Johnson’s transfer. “He has unbelievable talent, he’s an unbelievable player and he’s gonna be a pro.”
Needless to say, his first year playing at NU did not go exactly according to plan.
Johnson opened the 2019 season — after being announced as the Wildcats’ starter shortly before kickoff — against Stanford with an underwhelming 55 yard passing performance that included two interceptions and zero touchdowns on six completions. Midway through the game, Johnson was replaced by his biggest competitor for the starting job, TJ Green, but had to re-enter when Green went down with a season-ending foot injury. Johnson never got into a rhythm that day in Palo Alto, ending the game with a fumble into his own end zone that cemented a 17-7 victory for the Cardinal.
The Stanford game would be largely reflective of Johnson’s season, with some additional adversity experienced along the way.
Following a better showing in his first home start against UNLV, in which he completed 12 of 25 passes for 165 yards, a touchdown and an interception, Johnson’s woes returned in the first Big Ten game of his career against Michigan State. He was held without a touchdown again by the Spartans, accruing a measly 88 yards in the air and tossing an interception before getting benched during the second half for Aidan Smith. When asked the Monday after the game whether he was disappointed by his QB’s performance, Pat Fitzgerald replied, “absolutely.”
The next game, a road contest at Wisconsin, started what would become a trend of injuries for Johnson, as he went down with a knee injury in the second half at Camp Randall. Smith stepped in again as his replacement.
Around the same time that Johnson suffered his first college injury, his mother, Shana, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the weeks following the Wildcats’ loss to the Badgers, Hunter’s attention was turned to supporting her as she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy.
With his mother’s treatment progressing and his injury healed, Johnson suited up to start in a homecoming contest at Indiana five weeks after the Wisconsin loss. In the third quarter, he re-injured his knee and was removed once again. He’d miss the next two games and wouldn’t be ready to go again until 10th-ranked Minnesota came to town in late November.
But once again, Johnson just couldn’t avoid the injury bug. In the second quarter against the Golden Gophers, a hit from Antoine Winfield Jr. forced him into the concussion protocol. He didn’t play another snap that season.
In short, the pieces just never came together for Johnson in 2019. He finished with an overall stat line of 50 completions on 108 attempts for 432 yards, while four interceptions and a single touchdown left a bevy of questions about his future in Evanston despite the high expectations that preceded him.
It has been 650 days since Hunter Johnson started for the Northwestern Wildcats. That number will reset to zero tonight, when Johnson leads the NU offense into the huddle against Michigan State in their season opener at Ryan Field.
Much has happened between Johnson’s last start on November 23, 2019 and today: a global pandemic that threw the entire 2020 season into disarray; a shift in the entire college sports landscape with the Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA v. Alston; the NCAA’s rule change regarding players’ name, image and likeness rights on July 1; and the talks of mass conference realignment triggered by Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC.
But even within the Northwestern quarterback room, some important faces have come and gone between the last time Hunter Johnson started and the present day.
Ahead of NU’s spring camp in February, then-Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey announced he would grad-transfer to NU, making him eligible to play immediately for the Wildcats. Even through the pandemic, it always seemed as though Ramsey was a shoo-in to win the job, which he did. As such, Johnson settled into the same backup role he had abandoned at Clemson a few years prior, this time with observant eyes.
“Last year was definitely an opportunity to get to learn,” Johnson said on Monday, “To kind of prepare for each game when my number was called, but also learn from Peyton and learn from Coach Jake with the new system.”
To Fitzgerald, that student-like mentality has made all the difference.
“He’s more confident, he has a great relationship with Mike Bajakian and a great understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively,” Fitz said on Johnson’s improvement.
Yet even after a year of absorbing wisdom from Ramsey and his new offensive coordinator, most didn’t expect Johnson to be in the position he is today. After Ramsey led the ‘Cats to a Citrus Bowl win and decided not to return for the 2021 season, South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski — a former blue-chip recruit in his own right — announced his intention to transfer to Northwestern.
Hilinski became Johnson’s roommate, and despite the competition between the two, Johnson was a welcoming presence, helping Hilinski learn the playbook and adjust to life in Evanston.
By training camp, the two had become close.
“If I had one teammate who had to babysit my child, it would be Hunter,” Hilinski said at Northwestern’s Media Day on August 9.
When the dust settled, Fitzgerald opted to name the longer-tenured Wildcat in Johnson as the week one starter, a choice few following the program expected.
“I think he’s been through a lot,” the head coach said regarding the decision. “I think he’s grown and I think he’s learned a ton. When he’s confident and he lets his talent go out there, it’s as good as we’ve had.”
To reach the potential many felt he had coming out of high school and that Fitzgerald still sees in him, Johnson will need to be on the same page as his receivers, comprised mainly of players who haven’t seen substantial playing time in their college careers. Luckily for Johnson, there’s a familiar face among the pass catchers in Bryce Kirtz, who played high school ball with Johnson at Brownsburg and was also a part of the same 4x400 meter relay team that Johnson helped take to the state finals.
“It’s been fun,” Johnson said of rekindling his on-field connection with Kirtz. “It’s not very often that you get to play with a high school teammate in college ball, so having that chemistry has been great.”
As Johnson prepares for a second stint as the lead signal caller in Evanston, ‘Cats fans can only hope that the connection he holds with his fellow Brownsburg Bulldog can rekindle some of the same promise that he showed during his high school days. Regardless of whether or not he reclaims the superstar status he attained as a recruit, Johnson is grateful for the journey that has led him to today.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs, and that’s life, that’s football,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to keep plugging away and be ready for when my number’s called.”
And now, at long last, his number will be called again.