Johnson winning QB job isn't a foregone conclusion, says Fitz
EVANSTON-Northwestern fans can’t wait to see their shiny new toy, Hunter Johnson, in action. Until then, they want to consume all they can about him.
They’ve been patient so far, waiting more than eight months while the former Clemson quarterback sat out last season per NCAA rules. Now the former five-star signal caller from Brownsburg, Ind., is in his first spring practice with the Wildcats, and Purple Nation would like nothing more than to see his rocket-armed throws and hear head coach Pat Fitzgerald wax eloquent about his jaw-dropping skills.
But Fitzgerald has thus far thrown a wet blanket on those fever dreams.
For one, spring practices are closed, so the media can’t watch or report on Johnson’s reps this spring. And secondly, Fitzgerald is doing all he can to temper fans’ expectations about Johnson. He reminded everyone, with a completely straight face, that there’s still a quarterback competition going between Johnson and four – yes, four – other QBs.
Those five aspiring starters – Johnson, senior TJ Green, redshirt junior Aidan Smith, redshirt sophomore Andrew Marty and redshirt freshman Jason Whittaker – are still splitting reps equally among them this spring, until one separates himself from the pack.
“Just like the other six times we’ve had quarterback battles,” said Fitzgerald after Thursday morning’s spirited practice, the 11th of 15 the Wildcats will go through this spring. “The guys are rotating, learning, growing and, I think, all doing a really good job.”
So, how is Johnson, in particular, doing?
“He’s doing great, doing great,” said Fitzgerald, momentarily lighting a small flame before stamping it out with his next sentence. “Just like the other four guys.”
Fitzgerald has experience with quarterback competitions. His last one was in 2015, when redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson battled redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt senior Zack Oliver for the starting job. Thorson emerged victorious and wound up as Northwestern’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and wins after starting 53 straight games.
But this one is a little different. It’s a much more crowded field, so each QB is getting fewer reps. Plus, there seems to be, on the surface, one clear favorite in Johnson. (Johnson was not available to the media on Thursday because of his class schedule.)
The 6-foot-2, 208-pounder was the No. 2-ranked quarterback in the nation two years ago, a guy who got snaps as a true freshman on a playoff team at Clemson in 2017. Then Trevor Lawrence – you might have heard of him – showed up that spring and chased away both Johnson and starter Kelly Bryant (now at Missouri).
But while fans fully expect Johnson to take the first snap in the Wildcats’ season opener at Stanford on Aug. 31, Fitzgerald is still preaching restraint. He says that giving Johnson the keys to the offense is not a foregone conclusion.
“The thing that people have to understand, like Jason Whittaker, Hunter is a freshman (in our system),” said Fitzgerald. “He’s only been here for a year, so to put expectations on somebody because of recruiting is unfair.
“I’ve always said that and I lived through it with (USC transfer wide receiver) Kyle Prater, a young man that needed to learn a system and learn how to do things. As time went on, you saw the player that was just absolutely phenomenal.
“It’ll be a process for Hunter, just like it is for (freshman early enrollees) Michael Jansey and Rod Heard and Trey Finison. Those guys are all young pups going through things for the first time.”
“You put yourself in Hunter’s shoes last fall: you gotta change schools, you gotta build relationships, you’re running the scout team. This is his 11th practice running our offense. He’s got a long way to go.”
Fitzgerald makes a compelling case, even if it is coaching spin. He knows that NU fans are placing a Herculean weight on Johnson’s shoulders, so his job is to ease that burden and lower those expectations as much as he can.
The question, then, is what to make of this quarterback competition. Is it authentic? Or is this more like a Russian election, with the winner known among a small circle well before the ballots are counted?
Fitzgerald praised Green on Thursday as if to intentionally plant seeds of doubt, saying, “TJ has had a terrific spring. I’m not surprised. He’s our most veteran guy. I’ve been really pleased with his leadership and the way he’s executed the offense.”
But Green and the other three combatants seem to be outgunned, at least in the tools department, by Johnson. Green is a walkon, and Smith and Marty couldn’t beat out Green to be Thorson’s backup last season. Whittaker has less experience than any of them and is just getting his feet wet.
One thing is certain: the longer the quarterback battle goes on, the more it hurts Johnson. After spending a year running opponents’ offenses, he needs every rep he can get directing Northwestern’s attack in practice.
Fitzgerald’s 2015 quarterback competition went into fall camp, and he didn’t name Thorson his starter until the week before the Wildcats’ opener – against, ironically, Stanford. We don’t expect this one to go on that long. We figure that Fitzgerald will most likely declare Johnson the starter either at the end of spring practice or shortly before fall camp, so that he can at least get the lion’s share of reps in August.
But fans, as they have been doing since Johnson arrived in Evanston, will have to wait and see.
As Fitzgerald said, “It’s definitely a work in progress.”