Football: Hunter Johnson brings new confidence in his second stint as starting quarterback


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Hunter Johnson runs the ball. The senior quarterback will start his first game since 2019 on Friday against Michigan State.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


In 2019, Hunter Johnson seemed destined to follow in Clayton Thorson’s footsteps as the next great Northwestern quarterback.

The former five-star recruit transferred from Clemson as Trevor Lawrence, who was chosen first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, took control of the starting job. Players with Johnson’s pedigree don’t usually come to Evanston, but some believed Johnson was the dynamic talent the Wildcats — who won a division title the year before — needed to contend once again for a Big Ten Championship.

Johnson’s journey with NU has certainly contained obstacles. He struggled in the passing game and had issues with turnovers throughout a prematurely-ended 2019 campaign due to injury. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey earned the starting job in 2020, and after Ryan Hilinski transferred to NU from South Carolina this winter, many thought he was the likely starter this year.

However, Johnson has shown the coaching staff that he was a different player from two years ago, and earned the starting quarterback job in August as a result.

​​“You just keep preparing week in and week out, just trying to be ready for my team whenever that opportunity arises,” Johnson said. “I felt confident that eventually, my number would get called again and then I’d be able to go out and play with my guys again.”

Johnson completed just 46.3% of his passes in 2019, and threw one touchdown to four interceptions in six games. He struggled under pressure, leading to issues with ball security, but those problems were few during spring and summer practice.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Johnson’s quick reads through progressions and his ability to remain calm during plays have been his strengths.

“He’s being very decisive,” Bajakian said. “He’s getting rid of the ball on time, with rhythm.”

With a new starting wide receiver corps, Johnson will rely on the chemistry he built in camp to open up the passing game. Bryce Kirtz, one of the Cats’ starting receivers who played with Johnson at Brownsburg High School in Indiana, praised the quarterback’s ability to “put the ball in the right spot.”

Graduate wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. said Johnson’s delivery stood out to him in camp.

“The tighter the spiral, the easier it is to catch, and he just sticks it to your hand,” Robinson Jr. said. “When he’s throwing me the ball, I know it’ll be easy to catch.”
​As a high school prospect, Johnson’s arm strength earned high marks from evaluators as he put up 2,233 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior.

The Cats’ coaches seem optimistic that Johnson has moved past the accuracy and turnover issues that plagued him during his sophomore season. In 2021, NU will look to the big arm and smooth delivery that made Johnson one of the best recruits in the class of 2017.

It may be what opens up the Cats’ offense and helps guide the squad back to Indianapolis for the third time in four seasons.

“He’s more confident,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He has a better understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively and a great relationship with (Bajakian), and then he’s executed at a very high level.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @gablcarroll

Related Stories:

Football: Northwestern seeks to avenge 2020 loss to Michigan State in nationally televised Friday night opener

— Football: From the sidelines to the student section, Northwestern welcomes fans back to Ryan Field

Football: 2021 Northwestern positional breakdowns and season predictions