Football: How Aidan Smith has become the undisputed first string quarterback


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Aidan Smith takes off on a run. The junior will start his sixth game in a row this Saturday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter


Aidan Smith is Northwestern’s starting quarterback.

For the first time all season, the junior quarterback is listed as the only starter on the depth chart and sophomore Hunter Johnson is slated as the backup.

Because of Johnson’s lingering right knee injury and Smith’s strong first quarter against Purdue last week, Smith will go out with the first-team offense when the Wildcats (1-8, 0-7 Big Ten) play UMass (1-9) on Saturday at Ryan Field.

“Aidan definitely did some better things in practice, and that’s why he went out first (against the Boilermakers),” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “And then he got on a roll, and we went with it. That’s what has happened.”

Smith earned the starting spot by leading NU on two touchdown drives in the first quarter against the Boilermakers last Saturday. After those two series, the coaches decided to stick with Smith the rest of the way, even as Smith threw for only five yards during four second-quarter drives.

Johnson, a former five-star prospect, didn’t play against Purdue. He had missed several games dealing with a family situation as well as a lingering right knee injury. Johnson told the Daily he reaggravated his knee after taking a late hit two weeks ago against Indiana –– his first game action in over a month –– and he expects his knee to be an issue for the rest of the season.

“I’ve been dealing with it all year and reaggravated it,” Johnson said last week. “It’s not going to be perfect for the remainder of the season, but I’ve just got to take care of it.”

Johnson was limited in practice last week but has been a full participant this week, McCall said. In the reps he took with the first string offense, Johnson didn’t do enough to separate himself as the starter.

As he’s struggled with soreness in his right knee, Johnson hasn’t practiced as well as Smith, McCall said.

“(Johnson) has done a decent job,” McCall said. “He’s still sore in some things, but he’s done a decent job.”

McCall said Johnson still has an opportunity to regain the first string role by the end of the season. But he has to balance letting Johnson recover and getting him the reps he needs in practice and in games, which is a “hard” one to strike.

As Johnson has struggled, Smith has continued to improve. He played the best game of his career Saturday and led NU on a potential game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. But kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed a 32-yard field goal that would have put the Cats up four points, and NU allowed a game-winning field goal two minutes later.

Smith threw a game-changing interception against Purdue, but he also had a career-high 184 passing yards and two touchdowns. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Smith showed more confidence Saturday but showed some tendencies typical in young quarterbacks.

“There were some things that I thought were really positive,” Fitzgerald said. “We got off to a great start, we ran the ball really well, our offensive line gave him a lot of time to throw the ball. But there were opportunities that we missed that could have been game-changing plays… It was a positive step in the right direction, but we’ve got to take more steps if we want to be a consistent winner.”

Smith agreed with that assessment, saying he stared down receivers a few times and turned the ball over too often. But heading into the sixth start of his career, Smith said he’s better than he was before.

He compared the process he’s going through to a television system. First, the picture was “black and white and fuzzy,” but as he’s played more games he said he’s starting to read defenses better than he has before.

“The picture is starting to get a little bit clearer, and I think that showed on Saturday,” Smith said. “There were a few throws and things on Saturday that I want back –– a few beginner mistakes that I made. But other than that the picture is starting to clear up.”

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