Football: The state of Northwestern’s 2020 quarterback competition


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Andrew Marty runs the ball. Marty took first team reps in Northwestern’s first spring practice after starting last season.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor


Northwestern hired Mike Bajakian to be the team’s new offensive coordinator on Dec. 11, but he wasn’t allowed by rule to watch any of the quarterbacks throw until Tuesday.

So it’s safe to say there isn’t a frontrunner yet in the quarterback competition.

“We’re just trying to get an offense installed, and we haven’t even gotten to that point yet,” Bajakian said. “It’s fair to all the guys to have a clean slate and a clean start.”

The Wildcats started spring practice Tuesday, which was Bajakian’s first chance to install his new offense and work with players on the field. Bajakian took full advantage, holding a blocking pad and pressuring the quarterbacks.

Junior quarterback Andrew Marty got first team reps since he led NU to a win in last year’s finale at Illinois, but all four returning quarterbacks are currently on even ground.

“There’s only one guy that’s on the field, and it’s a good thing that we’re competing against each other,” junior quarterback Hunter Johnson said. “We’re making each other better. But at the same time, you can’t focus on what everybody else is doing.”

After the Cats had the fourth-worst scoring offense in the country last season, Bajakian is asking the returning quarterbacks to put 2019 behind them. But Johnson, graduate TJ Green, senior Aidan Smith and Marty each had seasons that were memorable in their own way.

Johnson had the highest ceiling as the former top quarterback recruit in the country and a highly regarded transfer from Clemson, but he finished the year with just one touchdown and four interceptions in six games.

Green competed with Johnson for the starting spot until the end of the preseason, but he was injured in the season opener against Stanford. Smith started a team-high seven games, but he went 0-7 as the starter with three touchdowns and nine interceptions. And Marty didn’t get a shot until the final two games of the season because he didn’t perform as well in practice as Smith and Johnson.

“That group learned a lot last year,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “A lot of guys watched Clayton Thorson become the all-time winningest quarterback and they rode the bus and ate the steak and they gave him his hat when he took off his helmet. But they didn’t make plays.”

“It’s a lot easier to stand on the sideline and say, ‘When I’m out there, you know what I’m going to do?’. Well, they didn’t do it. They’ve got to get their confidence up and they’ve got to make plays. Sometimes you’ve got to have that fake it to make it mentality and go loose and play fast.”

All four quarterbacks return for the 2020 season, picking up where they left off in the quarterback competition. The only difference is Bajakian, who took over as coordinator when Mick McCall was fired in December.

Fitzgerald said the installation of the new offense has “put a lot more on the plate” of the returning quarterbacks, forcing them to do more preparation in the offseason.

Bajakian will have 15 chances to work with the quarterbacks on the field before the preseason begins in August, but he regularly meets with them to start installing the new system.

Bajakian said he hopes to identify a starter by the end of spring practice. For now, the four quarterbacks will be competing for more first team reps on a daily basis.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily physical,” Bajakian said. “One of the biggest criticisms and valid criticisms is that the quarterback position did not do a good enough job protecting the football. That’s not a result of poor mechanics or poor techniques, but poor decisions.”

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