Position Preview: Quarterback

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

This time last year, Hunter Johnson represented a bright future for Northwestern football. The quarterback competition between him and T.J. Green was just a formality. Johnson’s superior abilities would prevail, and he’d command the Northwestern offense for the next three years. Or so it seemed.

One year later, Johnson is probably third on the Wildcats’ depth chart. The return of Green for a sixth year and the addition of grad transfer Peyton Ramsey suggest Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald was right all along: Johnson wasn’t and still isn’t ready to take the reins.

Whoever starts at quarterback will lead the implementation of new Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian’s playbook. After moving on from Mick McCall in December, the Wildcats’ QBs should expect some more diversity in the offense than in past seasons.

Let’s breakdown the three contenders for the starting QB spot:

Peyton Ramsey, graduate student

Ramsey appears the favorite to start week one whenever and wherever that is, and he should be. Four clips from his performance in the 2020 Gator Bowl against Tennessee should show us all we need to know.

The Cincinatti-native displayed impressive agility and vision escaping out of the pocket last season, an asset Northwestern sorely lacked. 

Credit: ESPN

Here, Ramsey completes a short pass to his tight end Peyton Hendershot. This is a play we should expect to see the ‘Cats run frequently in Bajakian’s new offense.

Credit: ESPN

Next, Ramsey completes a medium-length pass, finding the soft spot in the defense. If Northwestern could’ve completed more of these plays last season, the offense would’ve looked much smoother.

Credit: ESPN

Finally, a perfect over-the-shoulder throw deep down the field from Ramsey. The Northwestern offense didn’t stretch the defense like this often in 2019.

Credit: ESPN

For a more concrete comparison to 2019, here’s how Ramsey’s 2019 stats compare to Aidan Smith, the Northwestern quarterback who played the most games last year:

Ramsey’s rating was nearly double that of Smith’s.
Ramsey averaged nearly twice as many yards per completion as Smith.
Ramsey completed over two-thirds of his passes, while Smith completed just over half of his passes.

Ramsey also established himself as a leader in the Hoosiers’ locker room last season. Bringing that presence to Evanston will be key for an offense that lacked leadership in all facets in 2019. 

If he stays healthy, all signs point to Ramsey starting week one for Northwestern.

T.J. Green, graduate student

If Green stayed healthy last season, Northwestern could’ve played in a bowl game. After he broke his foot in the opener against Stanford, that hope faded quickly. 

Green will be an interesting case in 2020. He held an inherent advantage last season because of his familiarity with McCall’s playbook, but with McCall gone, it’s hard to say how much value that knowledge holds now. Nonetheless, Green still has five years of experience in the program.

In an ideal season, Green doesn’t see the field much. If anything, Johnson will need more reps as the backup if he’s to take over as the starting quarterback in 2021.

Hunter Johnson, redshirt junior

Johnson is the biggest question mark of the three. His inexperience on the was field glaring in 2019, and he’ll have a long road ahead if he wants to steal the starting job. Although Ramsey might have close to a lock on the starting job at this point, Johnson could still leapfrog Green on the depth chart. 

Given Johnson will be the only quarterback of the three returning to Evanston in 2021, improvement in practice and on the field will be necessary. 

An ambitious, but realistic goal for Johnson in 2020 would be to learn Bajakian’s system so he becomes the primary backup to Ramsey. By season’s end, hopefully he’ll have similar hype surrounding him heading into 2021 that won’t be as premature as it was in 2019.