Inside Hunter Johnson's drama-free journey from Clemson to Northwestern

Northwestern Athletics

EVANSTON, Ill. -- In early April, Hunter Johnson received a call from one of his old Clemson buddies.

The man asked how spring practice had gone at Northwestern, where Johnson now plays quarterback. They talked about Johnson's classes and their families. The conversation wasn't long, but it didn't need to be. They catch up regularly, ever since Johnson transferred from Clemson to Northwestern last June.

Johnson's friend is named Jim Clements. He's the university president at Clemson.

"It's a real friendship and a real appreciation for each other," Clements recently told ESPN.com. "We stay in touch. I'm hoping our friendship lasts for a long time, because he's really a special guy. He left on great terms. We think the world of him and always will.

"That is pretty rare. A lot of times it doesn't end that way."

Hunter Johnson's transfer story is pretty rare in today's college football. It doesn't include attorneys or waiver appeals or broken promises or burned bridges or even social media (Johnson isn't on Twitter, and last posted on Instagram in February 2017).

What it did include was patience. A lot of it. Johnson waited and he watched. In December, he watched Northwestern compete for a Big Ten championship -- in his hometown, no less. About a month later, he watched Clemson compete for a national championship, providing his new teammates with detailed scouting reports of his old ones. He sat out last season like transfers have for decades, running Northwestern's scout team and keeping the lowest of profiles.

Other than recruiting accolades -- ESPN rated Johnson the top pocket passer and No. 21 overall player in the 2017 class -- Johnson has little in common with big-name transfer quarterbacks, most of whom now control where they go and when they're eligible. He's a different guy with a different path, best reflected in how he departed Clemson and how he's integrating himself at Northwestern.

"I think it worked out exactly the way it's supposed to," Johnson said.

JOHNSON LEADS A visitor through the hallways of the immaculate Walter Athletics Center, Northwestern's facility that overlooks Lake Michigan. It's pro day in March and the main draw for NFL scouts, quarterback Clayton Thorson, huddles with Northwestern's other participants before the workouts. As Johnson passes, Thorson nods and smiles, extending his hand.

"I wouldn't have wanted to take away from what Clayton was doing last year," Johnson says moments later in Northwestern's quarterback meeting room. "He's Clayton Thorson. He's got every record in the book here, and he's been the man for a long time."

Johnson knew 2018 belonged to Thorson, who worked back from a torn ACL to start the season opener. Like other high-profile transfers, Johnson could have filed a waiver appeal for immediate eligibility and, given recent trends, likely been successful. But he had no false grievance to air about Clemson. He loved it there. He also knew his best chance to play ultimately involved a team without Trevor Lawrence. Johnson hoped to capitalize on the redshirt rule, which allows players to appear in up to four games without losing the season of eligibility. When told it wouldn't happen, he accepted what the year would become.

His focus became fitting in at Northwestern, a team and a place that he already knew. Johnson's older brother, Cole, was a preferred walk-on wide receiver for the Wildcats from 2013 to 2016. Because of Cole's recruitment, Hunter had been visiting campus since he was in middle school. But being around the team isn't the same as being on it. Northwestern wins with a certain type of player -- high developmental ceiling, overlooked in high school -- and, because of his recruiting hype, Hunter stood out in the locker room.

"I really didn't want to come in here with all the, 'He's a five-star,' and all that stuff," he said. "The biggest thing for me is developing relationships outside of football, because there's a lot more to life. Just getting to know guys on a personal level and building those connections, there's a special part to that."

Johnson said he felt things click about two months after he arrived, when Northwestern left campus for a week of training camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Players dormed together. Inside jokes formed, and Johnson didn't feel like an outsider. "I was like, 'This is where I'm supposed to be,'" Johnson said.

Johnson and safety Travis Whillock bonded over faith -- they attend Northwestern's Athletes In Action chapter -- and also patience. Like Johnson, Whillock had to wait for his chance after redshirting and then missing his second year with a knee injury. Whillock saw Johnson earn respect and trust from his new teammates while leading the scout team.

"He's a very humble person," Whillock said. "He doesn't let the [recruiting] stars and the hype get in the way of his goals. He keeps his head down. He works hard. He brings in a work ethic other guys are going to see, and they're going to want to get behind that."

ALL IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS in the South take place at Waffle House. That's where Johnson sat across from Dan Lian about a year ago. Johnson had made the tough choice to transfer, and informed Lian, a pastor at NewSpring Church, where Johnson had worshipped alongside several of his teammates.

"He struggled with it," Lian said. "You'll meet a lot of kids around football who say they pray, but Hunter, really, he wrestled with this."

Johnson knew what he'd be leaving behind. He loved his teammates and coaches. He loved the church, the campus and the community. Although he had originally committed to Tennessee, he knew Clemson was the right spot immediately after arriving in January 2017.

Clements meets with certain recruits as part of coach Dabo Swinney's "recruiting team." He's closer with players than most university presidents, and sent good-luck texts to Clemson's NFL prospects before last month's draft. But there are a few players with whom Clements shares a special bond. Christian Wilkins is one. Hunter Johnson is another.

"Clemson's on a lake," Clements said, "so if I'm ever on the lake and I see Hunter come by on a jet ski, he would stop by and hang out with my family for a little bit.

"Just a good soul."

In the spring of 2017, Johnson competed for the starting job, which eventually went to Kelly Bryant, who had backed up Deshaun Watson. Johnson appeared briefly in seven games that fall, completing 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Bryant returned in 2018, but Johnson seemed the likely successor in 2019.

There was another candidate, though, in Lawrence, who committed to Clemson weeks before Johnson arrived on campus. He, too, enrolled early, and his performance as a freshman last spring shook up Clemson's quarterback depth chart. Bryant would stay, only to transfer after Lawrence leapfrogged him in September. (Like Johnson, Bryant left Clemson in good standing, and several of his former teammates visited for his spring game in April at Missouri.)

"That was tough. I knew that both of us were extremely talented," Johnson said of himself and Lawrence. "I knew both of us weren't going to go there and sit."

The decision was difficult, but Johnson knew how he wanted to depart. He went to see Swinney, who said he would call anyone on Johnson's behalf, including other ACC schools such as Duke. Johnson wanted to tell Clements in person, too, but the president was traveling, so Johnson informed him over the phone. And there was the "heart-to-heart at a Waffle House" with Lian, who also knew Lawrence through bible study at NewSpring.

"Transferring from Clemson isn't always clean or easy, but even the honest way he was trying to do it, the total integrity spoke to his character," Lian said. "There's more than one time where I said, 'Man, I wish Trevor and Hunter were here together.' But I hope Hunter balls out. I hope they beat everyone and get in the playoff, and then I'll be torn between a Tiger and a guy wearing purple."

Johnson still streams the services at NewSpring. He keeps in touch with his ex-teammates and friends at Clemson. When Clements came to Chicago last fall for an alumni event, he received word that Johnson would stop by.

"It just made my face light up, I was so happy to see him," Clements said. "What a class act to come, still show his love for Clemson and for us to show love back to him. The Clemson family will love Hunter Johnson forever. He did it the right way. He was happy for his time here, happy for the experiences he had here.

"All of us are cheering for him like crazy."

REED JOHNSON HAS stories about his youngest son. There was the time a neighbor interrupted Reed and said, "Did he mean to do that?" The neighbor then pointed to a diving board at the other end of the Johnsons' swimming pool, which a young Hunter had just hit twice with the football.

Another time, Hunter was putting on his shoes after a workout at a local field when Reed challenged him: If you hit the goal posts, I'll give you $20. They were about 30 yards away on the field numbers, so Hunter would be throwing at an angle. His ball struck the center of the crossbar.

"I said, 'Get in the car, go home,'" Reed recalled, laughing. "I still haven't paid him $20."

The most humbling Hunter story happened on a family vacation to Florida. Reed, who played quarterback and pitched at the University of Evansville, wanted to show he still had it. So he and Hunter went down to the beach, where the wind had kicked up.

"For the life of me, I couldn't throw a spiral, but every one he threw back was a spiral," Reed said of Hunter, then a high school junior. "It comes out of his hand totally different than anybody. It just spins. He has huge hands and can put a lot of revolutions on the football."

John Hart has coached high school football in Indiana and Illinois for 34 years. Plenty of talented passers have appeared on his radar. But Hart hadn't seen a throwing motion like Johnson's since Jeff George, the Gatorade National Player of the Year at Indianapolis' Warren Central High School who played for Purdue and Illinois before going No. 1 overall in the 1990 NFL draft. The arm strength often distracts from Johnson's athleticism, which showed in the Elite 11 testing. Johnson also has a 38-inch vertical leap.

Hart coached Johnson during the quarterback's senior year at Brownsburg High. The team had been struggling, but went 8-2 behind Johnson, who led three fourth-quarter comebacks and won Indiana Mr. Football honors after throwing 25 touchdown passes.

"He actually accelerates or does better with that pressure," Hart said. "The kid has lived with it all his life. As a freshman, he started getting Division I offers. People don't understand, that becomes a huge target. Every flaw is mentioned, but not all the accomplishments. The best thing about him is his humility and his character.

"People will want to play for him."

WHEN JOHNSON ANNOUNCED his departure from Clemson, he received a warning from Hart: You're going to get a call from everybody in America.

"Trust me," Hart said, "he got a call from almost everybody."

Johnson and his parents quickly narrowed the options. Hunter visited Duke and Northwestern, where Thorson hosted him. He also considered Purdue and Indiana, as he hoped to play closer to home.

Northwestern had recruited Hunter out of high school, but he viewed it as his brother's school. "He didn't want to mess up anything for [Cole]," Reed said. With Cole in dental school at Indiana, this time Hunter saw Northwestern as the right spot to forge his own path.

"All along, I really knew I was going to end up here," he said. "I just wanted to cover my bases."

Once the redshirt-rule door closed, Johnson dived into his scout-team responsibilities. He sensed Northwestern could challenge for a Big Ten championship and wanted to give the first-team defense the best looks possible. He tried to learn as much as possible from Thorson, "a big brother to all of us."

"I was able to go out there and test myself to a certain extent, and run another team's offense," Johnson said. "Just play ball and see what throws I can make and what I can't make, scramble around a little bit, and have fun with those guys. It was a fun year."

Imagine that: A transfer quarterback having fun on the scout team.

The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Johnson is now focused on mastering Northwestern's offense, a unit that, despite Thorson's presence, has often lacked sizzle in recent years. Since 2015, Northwestern ranks 106th nationally in points per game (24.7), 123rd in yards per play (4.95) and 121st in percentage of plays 10 yards or longer (17.2).

The Wildcats are 36-17 during that span. A more dynamic offense, led by the type of quarterback Northwestern typically can't land, could provide a boost.

"Our whole team, we have a pretty sour taste after losing the Big Ten championship," Whillock said. "We know what we can accomplish, and we know what it takes to get back there. He's definitely a guy who can help us get over that hump."

Johnson first must beat out senior TJ Green and others for the starting job, which wasn't settled during spring practice. After taking all the right steps in leaving his first college team and joining his second, the next one is clear.

"It was definitely a test of my patience, this past year, this whole process, really," Johnson said. "But I think I've grown a lot from it. I just want to really push and strive with this team to win a Big Ten championship."