Former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson announced his intention to transfer this month, and the early speculation focused on Northwestern and Purdue as the most viable options because of geography and relationships.
Johnson is from Indiana, and his brother, Cole, was a walk-on at Northwestern from 2013-2016.
However, as a former 5-star recruit, Johnson’s options don’t have to be limited by what’s easiest. Even though he left Clemson because he was buried at No. 3 on the depth chart, Johnson is a much better player than your typical down-on-his-luck quarterback transfer.
Johnson competed for the starting job as a freshman but was beaten out by Kelly Bryant, who helped lead Clemson to a third consecutive College Football Playoff. When Johnson played as a backup, he looked capable and routinely showed the athleticism that made him a 5-star prospect in the first place.
If not for Trevor Lawrence, a 5-star quarterback talent that many believe to be the best in the last decade or more, Johnson would have pushed Bryant again this summer, and the Clemson staff would have been extremely comfortable with him as the heir apparent whenever Bryant moved on or faltered. In other words, Johnson was the victim of circumstance.
If he chooses either Northwestern or Purdue, he almost certainly will win the starting job after sitting out his transfer year. However, his search doesn’t have to be so narrow unless he wants it to be.
So here are three schools other than Northwestern and Purdue that would make a lot of sense for Johnson.
How Hunter Johnson might fit at Tennessee
Coming off a disastrous end to the Butch Jones era and transitioning to new offensive and defensive schemes under Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee might not be in a great position to win at the moment. However, Johnson will have three seasons of eligibility after sitting out this season, and he’d be a rock star in Knoxville if he signed on to be the face of the rebuild.
More importantly for Johnson, Tennessee should be able to sell the possibility of making him an extremely intriguing NFL prospect in the event everything goes right. He would run a modernized pro-style system under offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton and have the opportunity to prove himself against elite SEC defenses.
Of course, the flip side is those defenses could make him look bad, particularly if Pruitt can’t deliver on the promise of surrounding him with talent. Still, Tennessee is navigating 2018 with graduate transfer Keller Chryst and Jones holdover Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback. Guarantano is a sophomore, but isn’t a great fit for this new offense.
Also, Tennessee recruited Johnson heavily out of high school, so he should know the program well despite the changes.
How Hunter Johnson might fit at Notre Dame
Like Tennessee, Notre Dame also was heavily involved with Johnson out of high school, and the Irish fit the bill if the speculation that he wants to return to the Midwest and be close to his Indiana home is right.
The Irish feel pretty strongly about incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec. However, Johnson was a much higher-profile prospect, and he has some college game tape to further validate his potential. It would be hard for Notre Dame to turn down the opportunity to pursue him despite Jurkovec’s presence because Johnson is a safer bet with at least as high of a ceiling (and possibly higher).
The concern with Notre Dame may be that incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush still has one year of eligibility left in 2019 if he chooses to use it, and it could create a situation that replicates what Johnson just left at Clemson. That would be contingent on two big ifs — Wimbush making massive strides after a disappointing first season as a starter and Jurkovec proving early that he has program-changing potential. But that has to be concerning to Johnson given what he just experienced.
However, when you consider what it would mean for the rest of Johnson’s life if he transferred into Notre Dame and led the program back to title contention, the Irish might be hard to pass up.
How Hunter Johnson might fit at Wisconsin
Yes, Wisconsin has a two-year starter returning with two years of eligibility remaining, but talk to Wisconsin fans for a second and you’ll find they’re not exactly thrilled with Alex Hornibrook’s performance thus far. They’d love to have somebody who could push and ideally surpass Hornibrook after his 22 interceptions during the last two years, including 15 last season.
The sales pitch should be relatively straightforward. Wisconsin has a strong history of welcoming transfers and putting them in a position to succeed (J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson and Brian Calhoun), and they have a long history of fielding elite offensive lines that should keep Johnson healthy and happy for however long he’s in Madison.
Oh, by the way, they’re coming off a 13-1 season and have improved year over year under Paul Chryst.