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Northwestern football’s most important players No. 1: The Starting Quarterback

Is anyone surprised?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In continuing our summer football coverage, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 most important players in 2022. We’ve created a composite averaging the rankings of each of our staffer’s respective lists, revealing who we believe to be the most crucial to the Wildcat’s upcoming success.

However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.

Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.

No. 1, The Starting Quarterback

Ben Chasen (1)

As if the top spot could belong to anyone else (even if it doesn’t actually belong to any singular person).

Those who are familiar with the last several years of Northwestern football know the following to be true: when the ‘Cats are at their best, they are guided by steady (if not wholly dominant) quarterback play. When they’re at their worst, a fair share of the blame is assigned to the player(s) that line up under center — rightfully so, I should add. In 2018 and 2020, years in which the Wildcats won Big Ten West and significant bowl titles, they were stewarded by the quarterbacking of Clayton Thorson and Peyton Ramsey, who had passer ratings of 121.2 and 121, respectively. In 2019 and 2021 — two years in which NU went 3-9 and thoroughly Bummed Everyone Out™ in the process — Pat Fitzgerald trotted out a total of four different starting QBs (six if you count each of Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson’s 2019 and 2021 stints), none of whom ever caught on as a reliable signal caller and each of whom had some embarrassing moments with season-ruining implications.

Now, Northwestern once again prepares to enter the season without a clear starter at QB. The more veteran of the two contenders, Ryan Hilinski, who led the ‘Cats in passing yards a year ago (though that stat speaks more to NU’s completely dysfunctional pass game than it does Hilinski’s quality of play in 2021), would seem to be the favorite given his heightened experience with the first team offense. But as of spring, redshirt first-year Brendan Sullivan was considered by Fitzgerald to be neck and neck with the South Carolina transfer for the job. It’s unlikely, but an unexpected player like Carl Richardson or first-year Chicago native Jack Lausch could also emerge as a contender for the job as the season gets closer.

Given Fitz’s general tendency to keep his quarterbacking cards close to his vest and the shortened nature of NU’s summer camp, though, there’s a good chance we won’t know which of the two will break the huddle to start the Wildcats’ season in Dublin in less than four weeks until shortly before kickoff, regardless of who the mystery man is. What we do know is this: unless the level of play at the position improves significantly from its complete ineffectiveness in 2021, the ‘Cats aren’t likely to go bowling or make any sort of noise against a difficult Big Ten schedule. In the last four years, every time this team has gotten simply reliable and net positive play from its quarterback, it has succeeded beyond expectations. Every time it hasn’t... well, you know the story.

That’s why there was never any doubt that the quarterback position would occupy the top spot on this list, just as it has in every iteration of this series in years prior. At the end of the day, it’s too important of a spot for it to be a winning team’s weakest link, something that likely will weigh heavily on the minds of Northwestern fans everywhere as the season approaches.