Friday night’s game between Ohio State and Northwestern could be a showdown of five-star transfer quarterbacks.
You probably know all about the Buckeyes’ Justin Fields, who has lived up to every bit of his recruiting hype this season.
Fields has completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,298 yards, 18 touchdowns and just one interception. He has another 283 yards and eight scores on the ground.
Northwestern’s Hunter Johnson hasn’t shone quite as brightly in his first season with the Wildcats. Just like Fields, Johnson was ranked as a five-star prospect coming out of high school. He was considered the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the nation, and like Fields, transferred after one year.
But after switching from Clemson to Northwestern, he has struggled to capitalize on his talent. Johnson has completed just 48.3 percent of his throws for 367 yards, one touchdown and four picks.
Johnson has been slowed by a knee injury this fall. Johnson sat out the Wildcats’ loss to Nebraska and is listed as a co-starter with Aidan Smith this week.
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said he sees the skills that earned Johnson his lofty ranking coming out of high school.
“I think he’s talented. He’s got size, he’s got good arm strength,” he said.
Johnson transferred during the summer of 2018 and sat out last season with the Wildcats. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested Monday that Johnson needs more time to master the offense.
“He’s got to keep getting time-on-task of being involved and engaged in the offense,” Fitzgerald said. “Then, from a consistency standpoint, you’ve got to go out and produce on game day.”
Fields arrived in Columbus in January and hit the ground running. While he’s clearly still learning, there’s no doubt that he has a firm grasp on what the Buckeyes are trying to do on offense.
“We recruited Justin. He’s a rock star person,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s playing outstanding football within the framework of what they want him to do, and then he’s taken it to the next level by being really explosive with his feet.”
Fitzgerald, of course, was an all-American linebacker at Northwestern before he coached there.
Hafley has a slightly different perspective on Fields, as a former collegiate wide receiver and a secondary coach for the last 15 years.
“The thing that I look at especially from a back-end guy, the way he sits in the pocket and stays in there and wants to throw the ball down the field,” he said.
“It’s not like some of these guys where they hit their back foot and the first read’s not there and he just takes off. He makes you cover for a long time and then he also has the ability to tuck it down late and run. That’s hard to defend.”
[Header photo of Johnson courtesy Northwestern Athletics]