Hunter Johnson’s Ready for a Second Chance

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

Hunter Johnson looked defeated on the sidelines. Northwestern trailed Indiana 24-3 with 10:23 remaining in the third quarter. On this balmier than normal November day in 2019, the Johnson-led offense was ice cold.

That same day, roughly 700 miles northeast of Memorial Stadium, Boston College turned in a much more enviable offense performance. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, in his first and only year with the Eagles, helped scheme his offense to a 58-27 victory over Syracuse. The contrast between Bajakian’s offense and Northwestern’s couldn’t have been starker that day.

Nearly two years later, Bajakian prepares for his second season as the ‘Cats’ offensive coordinator, and his starting quarterback––at least to begin the season––is the now-senior who once played for Dabo Swinney at Clemson and once had Northwestern fans fantasizing of a return to the Rose Bowl.

Expectations throughout Johnson’s tenure have been tempered, of course. But on Tuesday when coach Pat Fitzgerald unexpectedly named Johnson his starting quarterback over South Carolina-transfer Ryan Hilinski, it provided a new vote of confidence.

“It’s exciting. It’s been a journey,” Johnson said. “Just excited to have the opportunity [to] go out there and play with my guys again. Just trying to go out there and do my job. That’s what I’m here to do.”

When Bajakian took the job at Northwestern in Dec. 2019, he watched every play of every game from the program’s lost season. In those 12 games, he had the opportunity to dissect Johnson’s struggles, notably turnovers and inaccurate throws into tight coverages.

“He’s come a long way since that,” Bajakian said. “His grasp of the offense and the level at which he’s executing is very high right now.”

As Johnson knows from two years ago, his job as the starter is far from secure, especially with Hilinski likely his backup. And the offense itself won’t be especially dynamic. Having lost last year’s top four receivers to graduation and with Cam Porter out for the year because of injury, Bajakian has to integrate a completely new group of players. For Johnson, that likely means playing to his strengths: getting the ball out of his hands quickly and taking advantage of his agility as a runner. This forces him to be decisive and should help him avoid some of the hard hits he took in 2019. 

With a defense poised to be top-tier once again, the ‘Cats don’t need to score 35 points per game. But they also can’t afford to average the meager 12.7 points per game they averaged in conference play two years ago. 

“We have to manage the offense. We gotta continue to put ourselves in manageable third down situations, complete the football,” Bajakian said. “We talk in our quarterback room all the time––we gotta be leaders number one. We gotta protect the football. We gotta complete the football. And we gotta get rid of the football. Those four things are vital to any starting quarterback, any backup quarterback. We need him to do those things to help us win.”

Flipping on the 2019 tape shows Johnson struggling in all of those areas, especially the last three. He turned the ball over eight times, had a completion percentage under 50% and was sacked 11 times. Since then, though, Bajakian’s seen improvement. 

“Decision-making. Progressions. Hitting checkdowns. Throwing the ball away. Those are the things we emphasize,” he said. “He’s bought into that. I’ve seen him do a good job of not forcing balls into coverage and things like that.”

If you’re looking for a comparison to what the 2021 Northwestern offense might look like, turn to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. Though Johnson is much more mobile than Ben Roethlisberger, the short, quick passing aspect that dominated Pittsburgh’s offense might provide a blueprint for how to be most successful with Johnson taking the reins: get the ball out of his hands quickly.

Even if that isn’t the type of offense Wildcat fans may have envisioned when Johnson first arrived in Evanston, the fact that he finds himself with another shot speaks to his development in the program.

“I think I’ve matured a lot. I’ve grown up a lot,” Johnson said. “It’s not my first go-around now. I’ve seen a lot of ball. I’ve worked hard with these guys over the past couple years and developed that chemistry. I’m just excited to go out and go cut it loose and go do it this year.”