clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bryant’s Bombs/Sullivan’s Slings: Evaluating Northwestern’s offense under the two quarterbacks

The ‘Cats will need to adjust their style of play to best support their signal caller.

Northwestern Athletics

As Week Zero of college football kicks off, the Wildcats are eight days away from beginning their 2023 season, but who will be under center remains a mystery. In Wednesday’s press conference, interim head coach David Braun declined to name a starting quarterback for the year, saying that the coaching staff has not reached that decision. Braun said that Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan have received a majority of the reps, but the pair of signal callers are still splitting time with the first team.

The sixth-year transfer from Cincinnati and the junior have been in a battle for the starting gig all training camp, yet neither seems to have pulled away with the role. Braun said the Wildcats will have a mock game at Ryan Field on Saturday, so both gunslingers will have one final shot to prove they deserve to lead the ‘Cats’ offense in Piscataway, New Jersey. Despite the uncertainty on who is under center, one thing is clear: NU’s offense will look very different based on who is QB1. When the ‘Cats take the field a week from Sunday, it is up to the QB to guide the offense; here is what the offense could look like under either Bryant or Sullivan.

Ben Bryant-led Offense

Now entering his final year of eligibility, Bryant has developed into a solid collegiate quarterback. In 2022 with the Bearcats, Bryant started 11 games for UC, throwing for 2,732 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Comparatively, all five of Northwestern’s quarterbacks only tossed for 2,524 yards, 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions last year. After losing the QB competition at Cincinnati this spring, Bryant transferred to NU to win the job and make an instant impact for the Wildcats.

If Bryant is named the starter, expect Northwestern to execute a more pro-style/West Coast offense. Bryant is as pure of a pocket passer as they come, displaying good presence inside the tackles and rarely taking off. In fact, according to PFF, Bryant only had five designed QB runs all of last season. Where the sixth-year thrives is his ability to get through his progression and find the open target. No. 2 understands what defenses are trying to do, and can move defenders with his eyes. In 2022, he completed over 50% of passes in the 10+-yard range in the middle of the field, where safeties usually roam in zone coverage.

In a Bryant-led offense, expect a lot of traditional passing concepts. Whether it is a drive, spot or flood concept, Mike Bajakian should let Bryant get into his three- or five-step drop, work through his read and find the open target. Now, with a pocket passer, the running game needs to be strong as well. There is a lot of pressure on NU’s offensive line with Bryant under center because the graduate transfer struggles to escape and improvise.

With the ‘Cats’ speed at the skill position, Bryant’s big arm can create splash plays on the perimeter. His footwork is sound, which allows for him to take his drop and let it fly, generating power from his lower half. Last season, Northwestern quarterbacks found themselves throwing off their back foot often, taking juice off the ball and allowing defenders to come make the play.

One area of No. 2’s game that should excite Wildcats’ fans is his ability to protect the football. In 2022, NU’s signal callers had 17 interceptions, the third most in the Power Five. On the other hand, Bryant only had seven picks. Now, he does need to cut down on fumbles, but overall, the sixth-year did a good job keeping the ball out of opponents’ hands. Football coaches have said for a long time that if a team loses the turnover battle, it is highly likely to lose the game, and that was the case in many of the ‘Cats’ defeats last season; however, with Bryant at the helm, Braun can trust that the graduate transfer will make a good decision with the football and will help NU air it out and win games.

Brendan Sullivan-led Offense

Sullivan, a rising junior, would run a much different offense than his sixth-year counterpart. In his four starts last season, Sullivan showed promise with his arm, but relied heavily on his legs for production. The junior did complete 74% of his passes, yet accumulated fewer than 600 yards passing. Although not entirely his fault, Sullivan struggled to pick up large chunks at a time, attempting fewer than 10 passes 20+ yards down the field. However, No. 6’s ability to avoid sacks and improvise is very impressive. He makes plays with his legs constantly, exemplified by picking up 161 yards on the ground.

If the ‘Cats turn to Sullivan full-time in 2023, expect to see a spread-style offense, full of designed quarterback keepers and RPOs. Sullivan’s legs open a new page in the playbook, forcing defenses to key the QB too in run plays. In 2022, Sullivan had 10 designed QB runs and nearly 30 passing attempts behind the line of scrimmage. To help the young quarterback limit mistakes, Bajakian attempted to get the ball out of Sullivan’s hands quickly. It worked, as Sullivan did not turn the ball over in his last two starts.

After 2022, there was a lot of room for improvement in No. 6’s game. Specifically, he needs to be better at working through his progression to find the open receiver. Sullivan found himself locking in on his first read, and if it was not there, instantly going to his checkdown or running. This year, he needs to show he can get to that second and third read if he wants to win the starting job.

It is to be noted that Sullivan was the presumed starter during spring practice; however, following the conclusion of spring ball, NU did go out into the portal and get Bryant. Whether or not Sullivan has progressed to where he needs to be is unknown, as all but one practice and scrimmage have been closed to the media. While Sullivan showed flashes of potential last season, it is still unknown how he would fare for an entire 12-game season.

Who Will It Be?

In pure speculation, I would expect Bryant to be the starter when the ‘Cats take the field in New Jersey. The veteran’s consistency and ability to protect the football will help NU stay in games, as the Wildcats will have a chance to actually win the turnover battle.