Evanston, IL (CBS Chicago)- Coming off arguably the best four-year run in program history, Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern squad is starting over at the quarterback spot with Hunter Johnson. Clayton Thorson, the four-year starter, was selected in the fifth round of April’s NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He departs as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards.

Despite the loss of the top QB in program history, there is some excitement heading into this fall, with former five-star Clemson recruit taking over the starting job. Johnson was ranked 30th in the country in the 2017 class and the number two pro-style quarterback behind Davis Mills, who signed with Stanford, and ahead of Georgia’s Jake Fromm.

He didn’t beat out Kelly Bryant for the Clemson job in 2017, and last year, with the addition of Trevor Lawrence to the Tigers QB depth chart, he decided to transfer to the Wildcats. Entering this year, the question is whether he can pick up where Thorson left off and keep the ‘Cats in the thick of the Big Ten West race.

“I think he gives them a chance. The one thing I love about Northwestern is, they’re a physical football team. They play hard, and they are coached hard fundamentally. As we all know, you need that one guy, that quarterback. I’m really anxious to see how Hunter does,” said CBS Sports college football analyst Houston Nutt. “You have seen spots. There are spots where, if you watched Hunter closely, you know there is talent there and he can do it. But, you just don’t ever know. The adjustment of transferring, learning a new playbook, all of these things come into play. I think he gives them a shot in the arm, and he’s going to be pretty good.”

That is the kind of hope that ‘Cats fans, who have gotten used to winning in the Pat Fitzgerald area, are looking for. Johnson won’t be alone by any means on the offensive side. He’ll be joined in the backfield by sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser who led the team in rushing last year. On the outside, senior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek and juniors Kyric McGowan and Ramaud-Chiaokhiao-Bowman return. Up front, the line brings back sophomore Sam Gerak and juniors Rashawn Slater and Nik Urban.

Defensively, junior linebacker Paddy Fisher (116 tackles 5 TFL), junior defensive backs JR Pace (82 tackles 4.5 TFL 4 INT) and Travis Whitlock (57 tackles 3 TFL) are back to lead the way for a unit that allowed just over 23 points per game last season. Sack leaders Earnest Brown IV (4 sacks) and Joe Gaziano (7.5) are back to lead the group up front.

The returning production gives plenty of positives to take into the season, but the ‘Cats were still picked to finish fourth in the West in Cleveland.com’s preseason media poll. The division is expected to be more open this year, but Nebraska has been the darling of preseason talk so far. The two teams will meet in Lincoln on October 5th. That isn’t the only big away game for the ‘Cats, as they also have to travel to Madison the week prior to face Wisconsin and a road date with Stanford awaits in the opening week. While the schedule is tough on paper, it’s all speculation until the teams hit the field a point that Coach Nutt was sure to point out.

“This is what makes football so much fun. Nobody really knows right now who is better than who, but it is all between the ears and the mindset you bring.”

Full Schedule

8/31 @ Stanford, 3 p.m. CT

9/14 vs. UNLV, 2:30 p.m. CT

9/21 vs. Michigan State, TBD

9/28 @ Wisconsin, TBD

10/5 @ Nebraska, 2:30/3 p.m. CT

10/18 (Friday) vs. Ohio State, 7:30 p.m. CT

10/26 vs. Iowa, 11 a.m. CT

11/2 @ Indiana, TBD

11/9 vs. Purdue, TBD

11/16 vs. UMass, TBD

11/23 vs. Minnesota, TBD

11/30 @ Illinois, TBD