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Northwestern scores potential program-changer with transfer Hunter Johnson

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It’s not often that a college football program has the opportunity to make program-changing news in the middle of June, but the Northwestern Wildcats may have managed to do exactly that on Monday when they secured a commitment from transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson.

The former 5-star prospect originally committed to the Clemson Tigers out of high school and spent a year at the college football powerhouse before a unique blend of circumstances necessitated his transfer.

Unlike other former high-profile recruits who are forced to transfer after it becomes clear that they’d been overhyped and were outmatched at a program like Clemson, Johnson actually lived up to the billing by most accounts. He showed a high level of skill before losing the starting battle to an older player with a deeper knowledge of the offense.

He continued to show promise in limited action as the backup in 2017 and in a more normal situation he likely would have been named the heir apparent to the Clemson throne. Enter Trevor Lawrence.

Considered by many analysts to be the best quarterback prospect out of high school in the last decade or more, Lawrence signed with Clemson in the Class of 2018 and enrolled early to get a head start on his collegiate career. Johnson decided to stay at Clemson anyways and tried to hold Lawrence off while making up ground on Kelly Bryant, but Lawrence ultimately lived up to the billing.

By the end of spring, Clemson had announced that Lawrence had already risen to No. 2 on the depth chart and many believe he is now a serious threat to unseat Bryant as the starter in Clemson. And Johnson had no other option but to transfer.

And now Northwestern has landed their most important recruiting victory of the Pat Fitzgerald era in Evanston — an era that has delivered 87 victories, 8 bowl appearances and a new $260 million practice facility that the university hopes will allow them to be competitive more regularly with the best programs in the Big Ten.

Johnson’s brother Cole is a walk-on wide receiver for Northwestern and the Brownsburg, Ind. native couldn’t resist the familial pull. He’ll sit out a transfer year and then have three remaining seasons of eligibility, and it’s hard not to get swept up in projecting what might become of those three seasons.

Coming off a 10-win season with these incredible new facilities in the works, Northwestern feels like it’s positioned well to take the next step after 12 consistently good but never great seasons under Fitzgerald. With a little luck, incumbent starter Clayton Thorson will return from offseason knee surgery and serve as the bridge to Johnson on a team that could surprise by competing for a division title.

If they can make that sort of progression in 2018 while Johnson waits in the wings and learns the playbook, it’d certainly make sense to think that Northwestern could be conference title contenders by the time Johnson is ready in 2019.

Yes, that’s getting out too far over our skis, but that’s the sort of impact a true superstar quarterback can have on a program. And Johnson has that potential.

He’s got a big arm with an incredibly smooth throwing motion that effortlessly creates spin and velocity. He’s got above-average athleticism that will allow him to make plays with his feet when necessary and to be a factor on designed runs, but that athleticism is showcased first and foremost with his ability to move within the pocket.

Johnson is a lot like current Chicago Bears starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and that should fit ideally within the frameworks of offensive coordinator Mitch McCall’s system. Obviously he’ll still have to earn his way onto the field with Andrew Marty and Aidan Smith returning while Jason Whittaker arrives on campus this summer, but right now it seems safe to say he’s got the largest skillset and is the most refined of those four options.

Of course, Northwestern could also add another recruit in the Class of 2019 to compete with Johnson and the other returning quarterbacks or even add an experienced graduate transfer to protect against the possibility that Johnson doesn’t work out. However, it still doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Johnson will be given every opportunity to start as soon as he’s eligible.

That’s a big deal for a program that has decided to make a more genuine attempt at national relevance in football. It might be the biggest deal of the entire Fitzgerald era in Evanston and, if it works out, we could look back at this little news blurb in the middle of June as the moment that changed the history of the football program at Northwestern.

Ryan Wooden is a full-time sports writer based in the Chicago suburbs. In addition to co-founding The Chicago Sports Column, he is a weekend editor for BetChicago and covers prep sports in DuPage County for the Daily Herald and Shaw Media. Find him away from the computer (or don't) on some body of water or some golf course somewhere.