Football Notebook: Less than a month from season opener, Northwestern’s quarterback competition will “be done when it’s done”


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Pat Fitzgerald watches from the sidelines during the Big Ten Championship. Regarding Northwestern’s quarterback competition, Fitzgerald said, “It’ll be done when it’s done.”

Drew Schott and Carly Schulman

At Big Ten Media Days in July, coach Pat Fitzgerald was direct in detailing how Northwestern can prevent a dropoff from its 7-2 campaign in 2020: finding consistency at quarterback. 

At preseason camp, the Wildcats are looking to find their starting signal caller in a competition between South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, senior Hunter Johnson and senior Andrew Marty. 

“It’ll be done when it’s done,” Fitzgerald said at NU’s Media Day. “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. We’ll see how things unfold.” 

Fitzgerald said he is looking for someone who can execute the offense, lead the team down the field, take care of the football and make the 10 offensive players around them better. 

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian emphasized two important traits for a signal caller to run his offense: leadership and building relationships on and off the field. While Johnson and Marty have an extra season in Bajakian’s system over Hilinski, Bajakian said the sophomore has grown more comfortable with the offense since his arrival this spring. 

In terms of the assets he brings to the competition, Marty emphasized the trust his teammates have in him after four years in the program and abilities to push the ball downfield and “run through people.” Johnson said making plays with his feet and throwing an accurate ball are key tenets of his game. 

Meanwhile, Hilinski shared that he is “preparing everyday” to be the starting quarterback in the season opener Sept. 3 against Michigan State. 

“(Senior center) Sam Gerak presented to the team the other night, and he said, ‘If you’re not challenging the next person to be as best as they can be, you’re doing yourself an injustice,’” Marty said. “We’re pushing each other because whoever’s gonna be the starting job is gonna have to be good.” 

O’Neil shares insight on defensive plan and position battles 

After spending more than a decade coaching in the National Football League, Jim O’Neil returned to the collegiate level in 2021 as NU’s defensive coordinator. 

Most recently serving as the defensive backs coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, O’Neil has been implementing his defense through the spring and summer. He said 75 percent of his scheme is new, while 25 percent is similar to the one run by previous defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

O’Neil, who said he brought NFL film to Evanston for his players to learn from, noticed a major difference between the NFL and college football during camp. 

“You go into NFL training camp, usually your top 14,15 players are locked up,” O’Neil said. “Whereas right now, we have a lot of competitive situations across each level of our defense. Every rep matters, even the walkthrough reps and the individual reps.” 

According to O’Neil, there are position battles at defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety. He directed praise towards veteran players such as junior cornerback AJ Hampton, Jr. and graduate defensive lineman Samdup Miller — who opted out of the 2020 season — as well as those vying for increased playing time. 

O’Neil said freshman cornerbacks Nigel Williams and Garnett Hollis Jr. “are battling right now,” and four other players, including graduate safety Trent Carrington from Presbyterian College, are vying for a starting spot. On the defensive line, graduate transfers Jeffrey Pooler Jr. (West Virginia) and Jeremy Meiser (Old Dominion) have impressed O’Neil. 

He added that redshirt sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher — the brother of longtime Wildcats linebacker Blake Gallagher — has him excited. 

“I would hope in the next week or so, we’ll have a pretty clear picture of that group of guys and how much they’re going to help us, or do they need another year to develop,” O’Neil said. 

Spivak earns No. 1 jersey for 2021 season 

Earning the No. 1 jersey is considered one of the highest honors in the Cats’ program, and is given to the player “who truly embodies the values and character of the Northwestern football family.” 

This year, graduate defensive lineman Joe Spivak will don the jersey. The honor was voted upon by the Cats’ players. 

“All I can do is thank the guys that have shown me how to lead, how to lead myself and just be a great Wildcat,” Spivak said. “It’s all for them.”

A native of Darien, Illinois, Spivak has earned 23 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and one-and-a-half sacks over four seasons. In 2020, he made his first career start for NU and appeared at fullback in short yardage formations. 

Known for his “juice” and energy in the locker room, Spivak is the first defensive lineman to wear the No. 1 shirt since Tyler Lancaster — now with the Green Bay Packers — in 2017. 

“From day one, when I got here, my biggest thing was controlling what I can control,” Spivak said. “The first thing is giving my effort, not just my effort on the field. Every single communication, I want to be fully completely into cause this is a really special place. It’d be a sin to give anything less.”

Fields returns to Evanston as Director of Player Engagement 

On Monday, former NU wide receiver Demetrius Fields was announced as the director of player engagement. In the role, he will work on initiatives relating to the player experience such as following the academic progress of student-athletes and creating community engagement initiatives. 

I am extremely appreciative of this opportunity,” Fields said in a statement. “I am looking forward to working diligently to build on the current foundation while working to enhance the holistic development and programmatic support of all football student-athletes now and in the future.”

Fields started 36 games for NU from 2008-12, catching 90 passes for 978 yards and six touchdowns. He then worked for four years as a college advisor and marketing manager for the Academic Success Program in Dallas and most recently served as an academic advisor at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @dschott328, @scharlyculman

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