EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked about just how much had changed with his program since the last time his football team entered August without knowing its starting quarterback, which was four years ago.
Quite a bit, it turns out.
“We’ve won 36 games, I think. And I’ve gotten grayer,” Fitzgerald said, before taking a look around at the immense physical changes that surrounded him. “The Walter Athletic Center. Hutchinson Field. Ryan Fieldhouse.
“Want me to keep going?”
The Wildcats undoubtedly have been a success story under Fitzgerald, who enters his 14th season as their head coach. But there’s little doubt that the past four have taken the program to a different level.
They now brandish facilities that are the envy of most Power Five programs. They’ve been to four straight bowl games and won three in a row. A program that won 10 games twice in its existence — one of which came when Fitz was the starting middle linebacker — now has done so three times on his watch, twice in the past four seasons.
And they get to practice on the shores of Lake Michigan every day. Not too shabby. No wonder Fitzgerald has turned down overtures from more blue-blood football factories and even parried mild NFL head-coaching interest for now.
Even last year’s 9-5 campaign has to be regarded as a huge achievement considering the team started 1-3 with an unseemly loss to Akron, a team that would end up 4-8. From that point on, they won the remainder of their league games (they’re now 15-1 in their past 16 Big Ten regular-season games) prior to the conference title game loss to Ohio State and beat a good Utah club in the Holiday Bowl.
But perhaps one of the biggest signs of the program’s transformation came last year when the team received a commitment from QB Hunter Johnson, maybe the highest-rated former recruit the Wildcats have ever had suit up for them. Johnson was rated as the 18th overall prospect in the 2017 class, according to Rivals, initially ending up at Clemson.
After backing up Kelly Bryant in 2017, Johnson failed to beat Bryant or Trevor Lawrence out as Clemson’s starter the following spring and announced his intentions to transfer prior to Lawrence ending up leading the Tigers to a national title. Bryant, who opened the year as the starter, transferred midseason to Missouri.
Northwestern couldn’t land Johnson — whose brother played sparingly for the Wildcats a few years back — as a recruit out of high school but beat out at least three other Big Ten teams to nab him as a transfer.
It was viewed as nothing short of a massive achievement for Fitzgerald and his staff and a huge indication of how far the once Little Program That Could has come. Johnson has the natural talent to be the kind of transformative, program-changing player who draws the eyes of both recruits and NFL scouts equally.
But here’s the funny thing: Johnson hasn’t yet been named the team’s starter. He’s competing with a fifth-year senior, TJ Green, who last season backed up four-year starter Clayton Thorson, a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in April.
As for when Fitzgerald plans to name a starter before the team’s opener in 12 days at Stanford, well …
“Yeah, I think we play at 1 o’clock [central time on Aug. 28] on the west coast, so I’ll make that decision at 12:59:59,” he said following Monday’s practice, “so you all will be the last to know.”
Breaking down the QB battle
Northwestern lists six quarterbacks on its roster, but the battle for the starting job appears to be down to two.
On the surface, Johnson is the chosen one. He’s the former recruit ranked ahead of SEC QBs Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm coming out of high school. The one who throws the ball like you’d expect an NFL prospect to. The underrated athlete who also ran for 525 yards and three scores as a senior. The true freshman who completed 21-of-27 passing (77.8 percent) for 234 yards and two touchdowns in his 76 snaps over seven games at Clemson.
Green might not be a household name, but his father is. That would be Trent Green, 15-year NFL pro and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. But despite his famous quarterbacking father, TJ Green was a near-unknown on the recruiting trail, not even listed in the Rivals database and offered a scholarship by only by North Dakota State. He joined the Wildcats as a preferred walk-on.
But now Green is battling for the starting QB job with the far more ballyhooed Johnson. To a man, every person I spoke with to this point has insisted it’s a legit battle. And Green says the NU coaches have ensured him as much, too.
“I’ve been around here for five years, and I know the offense,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like I’ve definitely been given a fair opportunity to win the job.”
To this point, TJ enters his fifth season at Northwestern with a shallow resumé: 37 pass attempts and zero TD passes in 12 career games. His longest completion is 18 yards. Green came in for a hobbled Thorson in the opener against Purdue, preserving a close victory — and an important one. Green didn’t win the game for the Wildcats, but he didn’t lose it for them, either, running for a score and completing 7-of-11 passes in a 30-snap save.
From the outside, it would be a major upset if Green beat out Johnson to start the season — even if that’s merely temporary. But even after graduating from his role of playing scout-team quarterback last season and impersonating opponents’ passers in practice, Johnson knows from battling on a daily basis for the starting job that he can’t match Green’s experience running offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s scheme.
“I knew scout team was my job last year, and I took that to heart and tried to give the defense as good of looks as I could,” the soft-spoken Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as I could about our scheme and then getting up to speed this year.
“I wasn’t able to get the same reps as the others did, but that’s just part of it. I had to be responsible for my own learning on the side, get in work with guys after practice, whatever I could.”
One week he’d imitate Michigan’s Shea Patterson. The next he was Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke. The week after that, the coaches tasked him with mimicking Nebraska’s star QB, Adrian Martinez, who set school records last year as a freshman in yards from scrimmage per game as a talented runner and passer.
“On a good amount of plays in practice that week,” Johnson said of his Martinez assignment, “the coaches were telling me to look deep first and then just scramble. I was just running my butt off the whole practice. I just tried my best to be whoever they wanted me to be.”
In a perfect world this season, Johnson would be the Wildcats’ savior at QB. Fitzgerald’s program might not have reeled in a ton of big-fish recruits at the position over the years, but it’s hard to argue with their track record of sending unheralded quarterbacks to the NFL — from Kafka (now the Kansas City Chiefs’ QB coach) to Trevor Siemian (Sam Darnold’s backup with the Jets) to Thorson, who is trying to make the Eagles behind Carson Wentz and Josh McCown.
But Johnson hasn’t been handed anything to this point at Northwestern. Just like he wasn’t when he went up against Bryant and Lawrence, the expected starters at two top-25 schools in Missouri and Clemson, respectively.
“Any kind of experience like that is great,” Johnson said. “That was a great experience, going up against that kind of competition, preparing me for the competition here.
“Now everyone is looking at all of us to make the right decisions. There’s a small margin of error, and whoever takes care of the football and moves the football best should have the best chance to win the job.”
How the Wildcats will pick a starter
Northwestern’s media policy doesn’t allow for practice analysis, so weighing Johnson vs. Green and drawing sweeping conclusions on the QB battle based on one two-hour session after two weeks of camp isn’t happening in this space. The coaches don’t even want media reporting on who received what reps, how many reps or in what order said reps were received.
But fair to say we won’t be breaching code by reporting that both quarterbacks have received ample reps — they each told us as much — and will continue to do so in the coming days before any jobs are decided.
If you’re looking for scouting reports on the two based on past performances, Johnson clearly has top-tier arm talent and has the athletic chops and run instincts to run the read-option series that took a backseat in the playbook last year for fear of getting Thorson too beat up.
Green is less physically gifted but has enough in that department to get the job done. He appears to make sound, smart decisions and enough athletic ability to open the playbook up a bit. Both quarterbacks are roughly 6-foot-2, but Green is listed a shade heavier at 215 pounds to Johnson’s 208. Still, it’s Green’s brains — more than his brawn — that has him challenging the five-star recruit to this point.
“I’m relying on my football intelligence and that knowledge of the system, plus knowledge of what defenses are trying to do to us, to get it done,” Green said.
Fitzgerald says he views the battle through three lenses as he and his staff determine the best path toward picking a starter.
“First of all, there’s the analytics side of it — the numbers, the completion percentages, throwing on time — all those things we look at from a standpoint of evaluating the plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Then you have the more subjective side where you’ve got … who do we think — at least initially starting the season — is the guy who can lead the guys down the field and score and lead the offense.
“And then we look at the big picture. As we look at the season, we’ve always approached it as you have to have more than one quarterback. We’ve been lucky sometimes. Last year, at least early in the season, we had to play two.”
Fitzgerald has even played with multiple quarterbacks in past seasons, by design. They rotated Siemian and Kain Colter at the position for three years, and though that arrangement delivered mixed results at times, it also resulted in a 10-3 finish as a top-20 team in 2012. A few years before that, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa also split time at QB.
Could he do so again with the unlikely pair of Johnson and Green?
“We’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Fitzgerald said.
For now, that process remains under lock and key. Sometime in the next 12 days, we’ll know what Plan A is, but even that might not reveal the entire plan for Green and Johnson this season.
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