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2022 Northwestern Position Reviews: Quarterbacks

Is the answer on the roster right now?

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Well, it is over. Northwestern’s worst season since 1989 is complete, and there is a lot of uncertainty going into the offseason. As Pat Fitzgerald makes his decision on staff changes, the 1-11 ‘Cats need to overhaul a program just two years removed from winning the Big Ten West.

Over the next week, Inside NU will be reviewing all position groups and giving our thoughts on where the group succeeded and struggled. First up: the quarterbacks.

Overall Grade: C-

It was not a good year for the NU quarterback room, teetering between below average and downright awful.

In a quarterback battle during camp, junior Ryan Hilinski retained his job as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback to open the season. Hilinski started out incredibly strong in Ireland, throwing for over 300 yards and leading the ‘Cats to their only victory of the season. It seemed that Hilinski’s superpowers were left in Europe, as he struggled mightily when the Wildcats returned to the states. Hilinski was benched midway through Week Six against the Wisconsin Badgers for sophomore Brendan Sullivan.

Sullivan showed some flashes in his four starts this year, but injuries derailed what was a promising season for the sophomore. With Sullivan and Hilinski sidelined, sophomore walk-on Cole Freeman stepped in relief for the final two games. Sprinkle in a little Carl Richardson and Jack Lausch, and it was a wild year in the QB room.

By the numbers, it was an abysmal performance by the Wildcats’ quarterbacks in 2022. Mike Bajakian’s offense was 128th in the nation in total scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game, making NU the lowest-scoring offense in all of Power Five football. Northwestern was 95th in passing yards in the country, averaging just over 200 yards a game through the air. On the other hand, NU was dead last in the country with 31 turnovers, including 17 interceptions.

here is no sugarcoating it: this offense was putrid to watch. The Wildcats scored more points in their one game in August than all four games in November; in fact, Northwestern failed to score double digits in seven out of its nine Big Ten games this year (I’m not counting the time-expiring score against Iowa; it was seven points). As the ‘Cats consistently trailed this season, their inability to throw the football did not give them a chance to ever surmount a comeback.

Like most NU supporters, I am waiting to hear what Fitzgerald will do with Bajakian’s job, but it is hard to argue that the quarterback development under his watch hasn’t been subpar. With all that being said, it’s time to look at how each ‘Cats’ signal caller fared in the most forgettable season in over 30 years of Northwestern football.

Player Grades

Brendan Sullivan: B

Stats: 71-for-96, 589 passing yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions, 24 carries, 161 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, four fumbles

I wanted to give Sullivan a higher grade because his tape has been better than his stat sheet, but his inability to get the offense into the end zone prevented that. It seemed like the training wheels were still on the sophomore, as he averaged 117 yards a game through the air.

Were there confounding factors that hurt Sullivan? Absolutely, but his insertion into the lineup did not provide the spark to turn this season around. In Sullivan's four starts, his execution in key situations, specifically inside opponent territories, was a weak point of his game. Sullivan’s arm talent cannot be doubted, as he has shown flashes of what kind of passer he can be, but his decision-making can and will be improved.

To the Davison, Mich. native's credit, he opened up a ‘Cat offense that was stagnant and one-dimensional. Before Sullivan, opposing defenses had to key the running back only, but his style of playing allows for a true spread offense to formulate in Evanston. The sophomore was fantastic in the run game and also opened holes for Evan Hull and Cam Porter as the read key now had to slow play his decision.

Not only in designed runs, but Sullivan's improvisation was also amazing to watch. He kept so many plays alive running around in the backfield and turned negative plays into positive ones just by being Houdini-esque. Would I like to see the sophomore develop a better pocket presence and not bail as much as he did? Of course, but it is undeniable that the Michigander’s improvisation skills kept NU’s offense on the field.

While Sullivan was not perfect and has a lot of room for improvement, it was obvious that his natural skills give him a strong foundation to build on going into the offseason. His biggest question mark is if he can remain healthy for a complete season, as the best ability is availability. Right now, Brendan Sullivan is the best quarterback on the roster and should be in line to be the starting quarterback for Northwestern in Piscataway, N.J. to kick off the 2023 season, barring a transfer coming to Evanston.

Ryan Hilinski: C-

Stats: 144-for-258, 1644 yards, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 18 carries, 10 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, six fumbles

Whenever someone has more interceptions than touchdowns and gets benched mid-season, it is going to be difficult to earn a high grade. Watching the tape every week, there were many times I just shook my head and said ,“Oh, Hilinski.” Ryan Hilinski’s 2022 season can be summed up as disappointing, as the junior did not make the jump both Fitz and Northwestern were hoping for.

There was so much excitement surrounding the junior after his phenomenal performance against Nebraska in Dublin. Hilinski put up over 300 yards, his best performance in purple and white, and it looked like Fitz made the right decision in picking a starter for the season.

However, it went all downhill from there for the transfer from South Carolina. Hilinski’s fundamentals deteriorated, as he consistently threw off his back foot or never set his feet when he threw. It felt like the junior struggled to go through his progressions, often forcing a ball where it should not have been thrown. Hilinski frequently locked onto a target and made up his mind on where he was going with the ball before reading the entire defense. The result were some really bad interceptions that left everyone scratching their heads. His lack of pocket awareness was also concerning, and the ball found the turf too many times when he dropped back.

There was a reason that Hilinski was benched midway through the season, as he was unable to move the ball against not only Big Ten Teams but also struggled against non-Power Five defenses. It seemed that every time the offense would get something going, a questionable decision or errant throw by No. 3 would cut the drive short. The number of turnovers committed was deflating to this entire team, and his performance in non-conference play was a sign that he was not going to elevate the Wildcats heading into Big Ten play. Quarterbacks are allowed to miss throws, but the transfer's lack of fundamentals was beyond concerning for his second year in Evanston.

Hilinski’s status for 2023 is unknown given surgery he had to repair a leg injury. Even if he were healthy, he would have to show vast improvement to reclaim his job as the starter, but that is an uphill battle.

Cole Freeman: D

Stats: 22-for-45, 178 yards, zero touchdowns, five interceptions, 10 carries, 87 rushing yards, zero rushing touchdowns, four fumbles

Two games of the Cole Freeman experiment were enough to know that the walk-on has a long way to go before he is ready to play in the Big Ten again. While he was put in a difficult situation, Freeman was outmatched, and it cost the ‘Cats any chance to win their final two games.

In what has been a theme throughout the quarterback room, Freeman’s footwork was all out of sorts. He struggled to transfer his weight to his front foot, keeping him off-balance and not able to throw with his full zip.

Footwork issues aside, Freeman’s decision-making was just bad and prevented Northwestern a chance at the HAT last Saturday. He was unable to protect the football, and it got to the point where the question had to be asked why he was still out there before he was replaced by Jack Lausch. On Thursday, we’ll dive more into his play on Freeman’s Flings, but for now, Freeman is not ready to be a Big Ten quarterback, and it would be a surprise if he sees game action any time soon in 2023.

Carl Richardson: Incomplete

Stats: 3-for-9, 39 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception, zero carries

Richardson came in for mop-up duty twice this year and largely did not do anything good or bad. The junior has not shown that he will be in contention to start next year, so we will see what lies ahead for his final season.

Jack Lausch: Incomplete

Stats: 4-for-8, 68 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception, four carries, -3 rushing yards, zero rushing touchdowns, one fumble

The first-year replaced Freeman against Illinois and was efficient in what he was asked to do. It should be an interesting offseason for Lausch, as he is the most unknown commodity inside the ‘Cats’ QB room.