Returning starters: Ryan Hilinski (Jr.)
Key losses: Andrew Marty (Graduation), Hunter Johnson (Transfer to Clemson)
Returners: Carl Richardson (Jr.), Brendan Sullivan (So.), Cole Freeman (So.), Jasper Stratton (So.)
Newcomers: Jack Lausch (Fy.)
It’s finally time to turn the page on Northwestern football! It’s an even year again, which means the Wildcats are bound to bounce back, right? If only it was as easy as that. Deciding whether the offense or the defense was the source of Northwestern’s problems last year is essentially a chicken-or-the-egg problem, and a major contributing factor to these problems was the revolving door at quarterback. This inconsistency made it difficult for the offense to run smoothly, which consequently led to an exhausted defense trotting onto the field after countless three-and-outs.
The even years had one big thing the odds didn’t, and that was stability under center. Clayton Thorson and Peyton Ramsey started every game during those two Big Ten West Champion campaigns, while the pair of 3-9 seasons both had at least three different starters over the course of the year. A good quarterback doesn’t solve all the team’s woes, but it certainly goes a long way.
Ryan Hilinski enters 2022 as the only passer on the roster with meaningful college experience, and if he plays the way he did in his nine appearances last season, then there will most definitely be a chance for someone else to battle him for the starting spot. After coming from South Carolina as a highly touted transfer with a strong arm, Hilinski largely disappointed in a year in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. If he can’t figure his game out in the early part of the season, Hilinski’s window as the starting QB of the Wildcats may be slammed shut.
Hilinski showed some promise in 2021, but also showed a lot that he needs to improve on. One source of optimism that Hilinski can develop into a viable starter in the Big Ten exists in the lack of continuity he’s had so far. After three straight years with different offensive coordinators to begin his collegiate career, Hilinski will have the advantage of learning under Mike Bajakian for the second year in a row. If all goes well, that continuity will allow him to improve on his decision-making and anticipation.
For the purposes of this preview, we’ll use clips from Northwestern’s 21-7 win over Rutgers, arguably Hilinski’s best game. Let’s start with this 4th and 12 play late in the first quarter, where Northwestern is just outside of field goal range. Hilinski is given a very clean pocket and has a boatload of time to survey his options. Instead, he stares down a blanketed tight end running short of the marker and overthrows someone who wouldn’t have gotten the first down anyway. If Hilinski waits a second longer and reads the field, he would see that he has a wide-open receiver over the center who could have left the cornerback in the dust if he was just looked at.
Now, let’s go back a little bit to the second play of the game. Hilinski runs the RPO, then fires deep down the sideline for Stephon Robinson Jr., who has his defender beaten by four yards. The mechanics are much better on this throw compared to the last: Hilinski takes a three-step drop, steps up in the pocket, and puts his entire body into the throw. The only problem? It’s severely underthrown. If Robinson didn’t have as much space as he did, that pass is either picked off or incomplete. Assuming Hilinski has the arm for it, this is something that can be worked on with better anticipation and reps with his receivers to understand where to place the ball.
However, he has absolutely shown the potential to be a starter. Here, Hilinski reads the defense on the option, then fires a strike in stride to Malik Washington, who races 64 yards for the score. Chemistry with Washington will be huge, as he currently projects as the top receiver in 2022.
Who steps up if Hilinski can’t deliver?
The only Wildcat other than Hilinski to throw a pass is junior Carl Richardson, who is 2-of-4 for 19 yards. Besides “Shirtless Carl,” the other rumored contender is sophomore Brendan Sullivan, who Fitz stated in late spring media availabilities was looking to be Hilinski’s main competitor for the starting spot. That being said, with no telltale experience between either of them, the presumed second-string job is wide-open and a brand new face could start under center should Hilinski not perform.
The next month and a half will be very telling in seeing who will separate themselves among the pack, and it’s very possible that it all culminates in an “OR” on the depth chart in six weeks. Who knows? If any of the other two serious options look good enough in training camp, we may see a battle for the top job before the ‘Cats even leave for Ireland.
Projected 2023 QB Depth Chart
|1st String||Ben Bryant|
|2nd String||Brendan Sullivan|
|3rd String||Ryan Hilinski|