In the last two seasons, Northwestern’s quarterback play has been a revolving door — and one of broken hinges and cracks at that.
Across 2021-22, the Wildcats have played Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty, Ryan Hilinski, Brendan Sullivan, Carl Richardson, Cole Freeman and even Jack Lausch under center. Only one of those quarterbacks had a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Since the days of Clayton Thorson, Pat Fitzgerald has strived for some modicum of consistency at QB. The team obtained it in 2020 after adding transfer Peyton Ramsey from Indiana. In his lone season in purple and white, Ramsey threw for 1,733 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games to the tune of a 121 passing efficiency rating. While his superficial stats don’t appear impressive, Ramsey posted a 78.6 Pro Football Focus passing grade, which was third in the Big Ten.
Following the departure of Ramsey nearly three seasons ago, the ‘Cats have not been able to rely on one quarterback game in and game out. In 2022, sophomore Brendan Sullivan played in five contests, starting four, and displayed athleticism, mobility and arm strength. However, Sullivan suffered a broken sternum in November, plus had seven combined interceptions and fumbles.
Heading into 2023, Sullivan was largely favored to be the team’s primary option at QB with the ability to refine his craft in another developmental year. Yet, Fitzgerald was not content with his existing group, which includes Hilinski post-ACL tear and no longer has the veteran Richardson.
Enter Ben Bryant.
The former Cincinnati Bearcat and Eastern Michigan Eagle ventures to Evanston for his sixth and final season with 35 games, 6,406 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and 17 interceptions under his belt. After being Desmond Ridder’s backup in Cincy from 2018-20, Bryant traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan to start for EMU. Ultimately, he returned to the Bearcats in 2022, where he posted 2,732 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven picks as Luke Fickell’s starter.
What traits does Bryant bring to NU? What areas must Bryant improve to allow the ‘Cats to be competitive in 2023? Where does he fit in the scheme of Mike Bajakian’s offense? Take a deep dive into Northwestern’s potential 2023 QB1.
After receiving a snap, Bryant employs consistent and smooth dropback mechanics that look rather natural. Additionally, Bryant has a repeatable throwing motion coupled with a release that can be lightning-quick.
On this play in the team’s season-opener against Arkansas, Bryant takes only a three-step drop before letting the ball go compactly. That enables the quarterback to find his tight end running an out route and specifically place the ball between two defenders.
Often, Bryant pairs his fast release with quick processing. If his initial desired read is open, he’ll waste little time delivering the ball.
Such pace can be especially challenging in a third-down situation. Against SMU, Bryant hits his stop route past the marker for a new set of downs in a hurry.
Even when his first read is not open, Bryant is capable of scanning the entire field and making his way through progressions. Here’s an impressive example of the Cincy QB working right to left before attacking the middle of the field and locating Josh Whyle (coincidentally, who’s now a teammate of Peter Skoronski in Tennessee).
In terms of arm strength, Bryant has the talent to make the vast majority of throws on the field. Beyond putting zip on short- and medium-range passes, Bryant’s best attribute may be his deep ball, which comes out of his hand with tremendous touch and arc — enabling receivers to make a play. In 2022, Bryant had a 93.4 PFF passing grade on passes thrown 20+ yards, which was 21st in the country — tied with Heisman contender Hendon Hooker.
In this 2021 contest against Toledo, Bryant places the ball solidly on his receiver’s outside shoulder, which allows his target to go up, make a play and take it to the house.
When he returned to Cincinnati this season, Bryant had the chance to play with two NFL receivers in Tyler Scott (now a Chicago Bear) and Tre Tucker (on the Raiders). In particular, Bryant could leverage Scott’s 4.44 speed. On this throw, Bryant drops it in the bucket to Scott, placing the ball perfectly over the cornerback’s head while allowing the wideout to tap his feet in bounds.
Moreover, Bryant’s arm strength manifests itself on long throws, specifically outside the numbers. These two throws were impressive in not only ability but also confidence.
While Bryant isn’t much of a runner — more on that in a second — he’s incredibly tough in the pocket and able to withstand hits. In the three games I watched, Bryant got absolutely decked on several occasions and regained poise, got to his feet and stayed in. Bryant has an aptitude for staying cool in the pocket and delivering throws through contact, such as on this RPO at EMU.
Though Bryant had just 12 scrambles last year, this play will turn heads. On a third-and-five near midfield, how badly does a player want it? The answer is resounding here with Bryant, who withstands a collision from Bumper Pool and keeps his legs churning, picking up a first down with the help of his teammates.
From the outset, it is worth noting that two of the matchups I watched were either in 2021 (two years ago) or Bryant’s second-ever start at UC. Nonetheless, there were several red flags that emerged.
Bryant’s accuracy can be very spotty and problematic at times. He had a repeated pattern of missing behind receivers; while this play involves his wideout slipping, the ball is still too far left of where his target would be established.
Likewise, Bryant frequently missed high and/or outside on passes. That phenomenon was a problem for Bryant in the team’s Week One matchup in Fayetteville, Arkansas: Scott had several big plays that were tarnished by bad throws. This is just one that would be an easy six with even a decent throw.
Even dating back to his first year as a true starter, Bryant demonstrated similar concerns. On this dig route, Bryant doesn’t fully step into the throw and sails it way over his receiver.
Collectively, Bryant’s 70.4% adjusted completion percentage was seventh among eight AAC quarterbacks to see 385 or more dropbacks last year. For reference, Sullivan was tabbed at an 82.4% mark.
In terms of his eye movement, Bryant can get locked onto a target without doing much to scatter defenders and intentionally deceive them. While the quarterback may have the arm strength and release to get away with that behavior, it can still have very negative effects, such as on this out route that’s jumped.
On certain plays, Bryant got a bit too frisky in terms of testing defenses, particularly by throwing into multiple defenders. Throws of this nature just cannot happen and could be better mitigated by rolling out and tossing the ball away.
Bryant’s pocket movement is somewhat erratic. At times, he’ll slide up nicely and evade pressure; in other instances, he shows little feel for rushers. This fumble against the Razorbacks was one of the nails in a black and red coffin, in part because Bryant had no sense that he was about to get hit.
While Bryant is incredibly tenacious, those aforementioned massive shots need to be neutralized with better movement and awareness.
Northwestern knows all too well about struggles in the red zone, and there were multiple situations where Cincinnati left points on the board because of Bryant. Misfires like this, especially on third down, can be backbreaking in the end.
On another third-and-four from inside the 15, Bryant throws toward a corner route when a receiver sits wide open on a curl in front of the marker. Sometimes, it’s better to gain smaller yardage and establish a first down.
Finally, as outlined before, Bryant is not a factor with his legs. He has just 34 scrambles for 173 yards in his entire career. While he can run for a few yards if nothing is open, his speed and elusiveness will not overwhelm defenders. Further, fumbling was a bit of a concern: Bryant coughed the ball up eight times in 2022, which was tied for 19th most among non-running backs.
In 2023, Bryant will head to Northwestern with two years of legitimate, full-fledged starting experience under his belt. Even though he suffered a foot fracture in late November, he should be ready to put his game action and teaching under Fickell/Ridder into motion. That sage insight is something that almost no current Wildcat quarterback can draw upon and makes Bryant distinguished.
When in rhythm, there’s plenty to like about Bryant. He can be more than just a game manager and take over with aggressiveness, arm talent, an indefatigable play style and good processing. It is worth recognizing that in Cincinnati’s game against SMU in Week Eight, Bryant appeared much more poised and made fewer mistakes than before — a possible indication of growth and settling in.
At the same time, Bryant must avoid some of the elements of his game that have plagued him across campuses. Though his turnover numbers, as well as turnover-worthy plays charted, were both at low rates, his inconsistent accuracy, decision-making and pocket feel will likely have to be refined.
In terms of playbook, the ‘Cats would likely employ many of the same concepts with Bryant that they used with Ryan Hilinski across the last two years in light of the fact that neither quarterback is an intimidating runner. That certainly reduces conflict for a defense, which someone like Sullivan provides in spades.
It appeared that Bryant tended to have success when running RPOs as well as operating out of pistol at both Eastern Michigan and Cincinnati, not to mention using an up-tempo offense. I’d like to see all three facets emphasized if Bryant does emerge as the starter.
Ultimately, Bryant may enter summer camp as the preseason favorite to start given his extensive background. However, he’ll have to produce more positive plays and reduce errors if he wants to best Sullivan and the rest of NU’s young quarterbacks.