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Northwestern QB Brendan Sullivan embracing team-first attitude in backup duties

Sullivan’s ability to earn more reps may not entirely be in his control, but he remains steadfast in rooting for Ben Bryant and helping the Wildcats however he can.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As Northwestern football entered its spring practices in March, one position on the roster that appeared to exude some promise and stability was at quarterback.

While the collective metrics of the Wildcats’ men under center were very subpar last year, optimism was generated in the form of incoming junior Brendan Sullivan. In the five games he played in 2022, Sullivan displayed athleticism, improvisation, mobility and arm talent — particularly closing his year strong in Minneapolis, notching an 86.7 PFF passing grade against the Golden Gophers. However, a hit in the second quarter of that November matchup broke Sullivan’s sternum, which knocked him out for the remaining contests of 2022.

From the outside looking in, Sullivan seemed to be the frontrunner to start for the ‘Cats this summer. Yet, that changed drastically when sixth-year Ben Bryant transferred to Evanston from Cincinnati.

Some in his position could have been exasperated by the addition of a different possible starting quarterback, but Sullivan appreciated the chance to hone his game against a more sage player.

“Obviously, you want to be the starter, but competition invites you to be better,” Sullivan said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s what Ben did. I’m happy he’s here.”

Resentment could have extended to a newcomer in the fray, too. But that wasn’t the case whatsoever with the elder Bryant and the younger Sullivan, who have formed a close relationship.

“You wouldn’t think that a guy coming in to, in a sense, take your job, you guys would be really good friends,” Sullivan said. “But, that dude is a great human being. I’m super happy that he’s in our room, and I’ve learned so much from him.

“Shout out to him for being who he is, and looking out for us. We’re going to look out for him the same way.”

Throughout this offseason and in camp, Sullivan mentioned focusing on improving his eyes and footwork, adding that he felt he played at a “really high level” in the spring and into August. Despite a tight battle for the QB1 job that lasted until the first week of September, Bryant emerged as the starter.

Rather than become despondent or bitter after realizing he would begin a second straight season as NU’s backup quarterback, Sullivan emphasized his ability to assist Bryant and the rest of the team, even if not on the field.

“I’m going to execute my job no matter what it is: if it’s the backup, [if] it’s fifth string, if I’m hurt,” the junior said. “I’m going to do my job to the best of my abilities; that’s what I’m going to try and do day in and day out. I’m going to lift Ben up the best I can do to make sure he’s prepared — and make sure this team is prepared — because, at the end of the day, we all want to win.”

In the Wildcats’ season opener at Rutgers, Bryant got the nod, posting a measly 14.8 QBR and throwing two interceptions as NU scored zero points with its first-team offense. With 2:45 left in the game, interim head coach David Braun elected to insert Sullivan and several other backups. The junior gunslinger led a 10-play, 45-yard drive that culminated in a goal-line touchdown pass to first-year RB Caleb Komolafe. On the possession, Sullivan went 3-for-4 with 13 passing yards and 11 rushing yards — ironically enough, making him Northwestern’s game-leading rusher.

“It felt really good,” Sullivan said about the series. “Your job as the backup is to execute when your number’s called on.”

In the wake of Bryant’s struggles and the Wildcats’ dismal offensive output, questions emerged about whether Sullivan could garner more starting reps in the near future. Braun largely nixed those by noting that Bryant was the starter for this week’s game against UTEP and “moving forward,” but still praised Sullivan.

“Proud of the way Sully came in,” Braun said Monday. “You take stock in everything; everything’s being evaluated... We talk about owning our roles, well, Brendan Sullivan has owned his role throughout camp and moving forward into prep for Rutgers. That doesn’t mean that Sully has to be satisfied with his role.”

Whether or not Sullivan is utilized more frequently in the next few weeks largely hinges on the play of Bryant, plus NU’s collective offensive output with the transfer at the helm. Regardless, the junior is actively rooting for Bryant’s success, even if it reduces his own opportunities.

“I’m always prepared to be the starter, but I’m not wishing that that’s going to happen,” Sullivan said. “I know Ben’s a great quarterback; he’s going to execute at a very high level. I would never wish for him to lose his job or for something to happen to him. I know that he’s going to do a really good job the rest of the season, and I’ll always be prepared to back him up.”

A year ago, Sullivan entered August in a similar position before notching starting reps against Wisconsin in Week Six, a position he didn’t relinquish until his injury. If Bryant remains Northwestern’s starter for all of 2023 — with Sullivan idle on the bench — some could view the year as prohibiting the junior’s long-standing development. Yet, Sullivan isn’t prioritizing his own growth or snaps over large-scale, program-wide objectives.

“My goals are to help this team out as best as possible. My goals are to win as a team,” Sullivan remarked. “I want to win a Big Ten Championship. Whatever my role is in that — this year, it’s being a backup. This year, it’s helping my team out as best as possible off the field, and then a little bit on the field. So, that’s what I’m going to do.”