In recent years, it’s become (cue Jim Nantz voice) “a tradition unlike any other”- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald holding out on declaring his starting quarterback until the absolute final moment.
Don’t be surprised if we see the dreaded “OR” on the depth chart heading into the season opener, at home against Michigan State on Sept. 3. Sophomore and South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski should win the job eventually, over senior and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson.
Senior Andrew Marty is in the mix as well for the numero uno gig, but it’s hard to imagine he actually rises above QB2 this season. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey came in and won the job over Johnson last year, but he’s gone now.
Ramsey did a great job, but his departure, plus the failure of any one candidate to win the job in spring ball means it’s all wide open now. Of course, Fitzgerald greatly enjoys keeping the QB depth chart as secret as possible, and even making jokes about just how he stealth he really goes about the signal caller selection process.
“It’ll be done when it’s when it’s done, and I’m not going to put a timetable on it,” Fitzgerald said at Northwestern Media Day yesterday.
“Of course I wish it was done in spring ball, but nobody really separated themselves and I’m not saying that as a negative, the whole group is improved and gotten better, and that’s a credit to them so we’ll see how things unfold.”
Johnson, ranked the number two QB in his recruiting class, came to NU in 2018, but endured a very rough season, both on and off the field in 2019. His statistics were very poor and his campaign quite abbreviated.
He did not throw a pass in the covid-shortened quasi-season, sorta/kinda season of 2020.
“I think I was one of the last coaches in the country, to take a transfer quarterback and now coincidentally it’s happened (three straight years),” Fitzgerald said.
“Ryan plugs a hole at that position. we’re going to have 5 quarterbacks, and you know the saying- that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none, so we’ve got five, so you can do the math on that.”
He followed that joke up with another “for some reason, when a right guard transfers, it just doesn’t get all the same attention that the quarterbacks do, I wonder why that is?”
NU is now employing the transfer market to find and groom quarterbacks in the way they used to recruit and develop them out of high school. Over the years now, we’ve some an impressive list form, with names like Clayton Thorson, Trevor Siemian, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher, Brett Basanez, Dan Persa, Zak Kustok and more.
“You go back, you go (1995 Rose Bowl team QB1 Steve) Schnur to Ramsey, we’ve had some pretty good Mt. Rushmore quarterbacks,” Fitz said at Big Ten Media Day.
“We’ve had some pretty damn good quarterback play. Maybe we haven’t had All-Americans, or first round ‘talent,’ but we’ve had multiple all-big ten guys.”
It’s true, in the 2010 season Persa set the Big Ten single-season record for completion percentage at 73.5%. Kafka set a Big Ten record for single game rushing yards by a quarterback. Siemian was a NFL starter for a brief time.
Kustok was a dual threat who was a co-Big Ten champion. Thorson rewrote the school record book. Basanez and Bacher are right up there with him.
So who, from the current quarterback room, could end up being Kafkaesque this season? Who can follow the Wildcats signal caller tradition, and who is the standard bearer?
“Oh so who would ‘Be Like Mike,” yeah could Be Like Mike, yeah right,” Fitz responded, in reference to the famous Michael Jordan sports drink ad campaign of the early ’90s.
“You know I probably take a little bit of everybody right, you’d take the leadership of guys like Schnur and Pursa, the arm talent of guys like Thorson and Kakfa that had big arms, that could make all the shots.
“You take the athleticism of Kain (Colter), you take the moxie and the leadership of Peyton, did I leave anybody out? I don’t know, that’s a pretty good crew right there I mean, oh yeah Bas, I take the swag o Bas, Bas is pretty swaggy.”
“We’ve had some great ones and I’m probably leaving some other guys out, but I mean it’s been a fun group to work with.”
Stay tuned, as we’ll have more on the QB situation, featuring interviews with all three candidates, in our quarterback and season previews coming later this month.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.Follow paulmbanks