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2023 Northwestern football position previews: Quarterbacks

Is stability too much to ask for?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Temple Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Given everything that has happened in the past three weeks, it’s admittedly difficult to think about Northwestern football right now. However, with just over five weeks remaining before NU heads east, the depth chart is beginning to shape up — and there are still many questions across the roster that could linger all the way until Sept. 3. So, we’ll begin our annual series of previewing each position group on the team, starting with the quarterbacks.

Overview:

Returning starters: Ryan Hilinski (Sr.), Brendan Sullivan (Jr.), Cole Freeman (Jr.)

Key losses: Carl Richardson (Transfer to UW-Platteville)

Returners: Jack Lausch (So.)

Newcomers: Ben Bryant (Sr.), Aidan Gray (Fy.)

Northwestern’s 2022 quarterback room was one for the books — not in a good way. A handful of passers got the starting nod en route to an infamous 1-11 record. Ryan Hilinski started the season under center, nabbing a win against Nebraska in a showing that left many cautiously optimistic that the former South Carolina Gamecock had found his rhythm in Evanston.

It didn’t take long for those aspirations to prove lofty, as Hilinski went on to boast a 4-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his remaining appearances. Former head coach Pat Fitzgerald tried out a duo of sophomores, Brendan Sullivan and Cole Freeman. Sullivan flexed the strongest statline — “strongest” being a relative term — thanks to a 73.9% completion rate and a (barely) positive TD-to-INT ratio. Freeman tallied zero touchdowns and nine turnovers.

Needless to say, a reformation within NU’s football program — albeit for matters far more serious than quarterback production — might be able to kickstart a new era within the position room.

The ‘Cats landed a big-time transfer in former Cincinnati QB Ben Bryant. Bryant, against decently impressive competition, notched a statline vastly more desirable than anything any of the Northwestern slingers accomplished. Amidst the school administration’s attempt to purge the program of toxicity that The Athletic reported dates back decades, Bryant’s lack of affiliation with the Wildcats could prove to advantage the team.

Key Player:

Ben Bryant

By Northwestern standards, Bryant dominated at Cincy last season. He passed for 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions, adding over 2,700 yards in the air. To his credit, he also only lost one fumble all year.

Bryant is far from a flawless quarterback. He initially hoped to declare for the NFL Draft after his recent campaign, but a late-season foot injury spoiled his chances to sneak into Day 3. Now, he heads into a fight for the starting spot. To secure his spot under center, Bryant needs to improve his footwork. In the face of pressure, he throws off balance or on his back foot way too much, resulting in errant throws and unnecessary interceptions. It’s also a well diagnosed issue that Bryant doesn’t make his reads consistently, too often selecting a receiver before the snap to pass to.

Looking ahead to the 2023 season, assuming Bryant beats out Sullivan in camp, the super senior will have one more chance to prove to NFL teams that he’s worth a draft pick. That bodes well for David Braun and Co., who can surely get behind any sort of motivation at this point. Bryant’s arm strength and red zone proficiency looks to bolster an ailing position group.

Big Question:

Can Ben Bryant steady the ship?

In the last 12 months, five quarterbacks touched the field for the ‘Cats, a head coach was axed and to mark the instability as resolved would be grossly presumptuous. It’s well documented that the quarterback is the face of a team. To rebuild a program and its culture will be impossible without a steady hand leading on the field.

Enter: Ben Bryant? Hopefully, he can turn that question mark into a period, affirming his presence as a winner — on and off the field. No one expects a football team fresh off a 1-11 year and a coaching change to excel. To be a “winner,” Bryant doesn’t need to take NU to a bowl game; he doesn’t even have to tally a winning record. He simply needs to be good enough to justify him starting, without question, in every game of the season.

That might be an out-of-touch goal, but if the Illinois native can remove concern about who’ll be taking snaps on Saturday, Braun and fans alike will bask in a change from 2022.

Bryant has an early lead on the competition, seasoned on the collegiate level with stats to back it up. All he needs to do is continue to make small improvements, stay healthy, foster a positive culture and show up when it matters.

Depth Chart

Projected 2023 QB Depth Chart

Projected 2023 QB Depth Chart

Position Player
Position Player
1st String Ben Bryant
2nd String Brendan Sullivan
3rd String Ryan Hilinski