Football Notebook: Hunter Johnson building rapport with NU offense ahead of season opener

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Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Senior quarterback Hunter Johnson prepares for a snap. Announced last week as Northwestern’s starting quarterback, Johnson is building rapport with his receiving corps.

John Riker, Senior Staffer


Football


Three weeks before Northwestern’s season opener against Michigan State, coach Pat Fitzgerald announced senior quarterback Hunter Johnson as the team’s starting signal caller over South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and senior quarterback Andrew Marty.

The decision has paid dividends during preseason practice.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Johnson has been working with the Wildcats’ starting receivers to build chemistry and rapport ahead of NU’s conference clash with the Spartans. The senior signal caller, who won the job behind his improved consistency and accuracy, will be throwing to a unit that is one of the conference’s youngest in experience.

NU’s top three receivers in 2020 — Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees — all left the team in the offseason. The current receiver room, composed of graduate transfer Stephon Robinson Jr., redshirt sophomore Bryce Kirtz and junior Malik Washington, are early beneficiaries of increased practice routes with Johnson.

“You try your best to get as many reps together, whether that’s in practice or pre- or post-practice,” wide receivers coach Dennis Springer said. “QB1 leading the position meetings that they have together, so working hard to build that chemistry more consistently once he was named.”

Coaches believe Robinson can be a difference-maker on offense after transferring in from Kansas, where he racked up 727 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior in 2019 before injuries cut his senior campaign short. Kirtz — who played with Johnson at Brownsburg High — and Washington each appeared in four games in 2020, though neither eclipsed 100 yards on the season.

Seniors JJ Jefferson and Berkeley Holman, junior Raymond Niro III and redshirt sophomore Wayne Dennis Jr. could also factor into the receiving corps.

Working with the wideouts has eased Johnson into his new role and has him excited about what opposing defenses will see when they line up against the Cats.

“We’re gonna be pretty explosive,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of talented guys that can catch and run after the catch. Our O-Line’s been doing a great job of getting a good push up front.”

Fitzgerald praises NU’s focus ahead of Michigan State

After months of practice, NU is preparing to turn the corner and set its sights on game action. The first obstacle in the Cats’ defense of their Big Ten West title: Michigan State, who handed the Cats their single regular season loss last season.

Fitzgerald said he was encouraged by his team’s performance in practice but knows the challenges of the transition ahead, starting with the Spartans coming to Ryan Field on Sept. 3.

“Our focus has been really good; their effort level in practice has been outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “Now it’s getting into game week routine — getting yourself mentally, physically and emotionally ready to compete against an outstanding team.”

With new starters on both sides of the ball, he added that establishing a game week routine will be a priority. Now in his 16th year, NU’s head coach pointed to the team’s veterans and leaders helping underclassmen get up to speed and prepare for the regular season.

“For some of the younger guys, it’s a learning curve, and our expectation is that our older guys will talk to them about their routine and how they go about their business,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’ll be new for some young guys, and it’ll be fun to watch them Friday night.”

Impact of Newsome, Pace felt in defensive back room

The Cats’ secondary was among the nation’s best last season, but they’ll head into the season without two of their starters: cornerback Greg Newsome II, the 26th overall pick in the 2021 National Football League Draft by the Cleveland Browns, and safety JR Pace — who signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent.

With All-American safety Brandon Joseph, junior defensive back A.J. Hampton and redshirt sophomore defensive back Cameron Mitchell returning, NU’s secondary will have some continuity. Yet the leadership and impact of Newsome and Pace is undeniable to this year’s team, according to Hampton.

“Ever since I got in from day one, people like Greg and JR, even Montre (Hartage) and all of them, they took me in and put me in that mindset of being the best on the field all of the time and not giving wide receivers the room to believe he won the rep because he’s better than me,” Hampton said.

Hampton acknowledged that he misses both of his former teammates, but is optimistic that the defensive backs will continue where they left off last year.

“You go from seeing them every day to not seeing them any more, but we’ve had a lot of guys who have stepped up and are ready to play,” Hampton said. “You’re not going to see a drop off or be worried about it because we’re going to bring the same energy and be the same group as last year.”

Cats name five captains for 2021 season

On Wednesday, Fitzgerald tabbed five players as captains for the upcoming season.

Johnson and senior offensive lineman Sam Gerak represent the offense, while graduate linebacker Chris Bergin, Joseph and graduate defensive lineman Joe Spivak represent a unit that was the Big Ten’s best scoring defense in 2020.

The group is heavy on both talent and leadership. Both Joseph and Bergin were named to All-Big Ten teams after standout 2020 seasons, Spivak was voted by NU’s players to wear the No. 1 jersey for the upcoming season and Gerak and Johnson bring valuable in-game experience to a mostly green offensive unit.

“A leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way,” Fitzgerald said on Twitter. “Congratulations men! The ultimate sign of trust from your teammates.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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