Northwestern Spring Preview: Part 1

Coming off their 10-3 season and Outback Bowl trouncing at the hands of Tennessee, the Northwestern Wildcats kick off spring practice this week and continuing into April. The ‘Cats are coming off their best season since 2012 and only their second 10-win season since 1995. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, it rarely resembled the quality of football people are used to seeing in Big Ten play, but however they did it the Wildcats found ways game after game to get it done.

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Now as Northwestern starts to gear up for next season, there are a few key questions we hope will begin to get answered before the season officially kicks off in the fall.

Will we see any growth in Thorson’s game?

His freshman season sure didn’t look like one that belonged to a 10-win quarterback who led his team to a bowl game, but Clayton Thorson always did just enough to win and not quite enough to lose. He finished the year with 1,522 yards with seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 5.16 YPA.

While Thorson showed flashes at times his play was inconsistent, to be expected from a redshirt freshman. He wasn’t particularly accurate and a number of his incomplete passes were very nearly intercepted. If you go back and watch the tape, he was very fortunate to have escaped the season with only nine picks.

But to be fair, it wasn’t always Thorson’s fault. Outside of Dan Vitale he didn’t have a single consistent receiver. Multiple passes were dropped every game and that just accounts for the times the wide receivers were able to get open. On top of that, the offensive line was a rotating door as it dealt with a number of injuries throughout the season. It would be fair to say Thorson didn’t get a fair shake last season and deserves another shot before he is truly judged as the potential starter for the next three years.

The positives came in the form of what Thorson did with his legs, rushing the ball 100 times for 397 yards and five touchdowns. If Thorson could improve himself as a passer both in and outside of the pocket, he could be a real headache for opposing defenses. But that is the key, can Thorson be a good enough passer to continue to make him a threat to run? Late in the season opposing defenses became all too familiar with Northwestern’s option calls and without a legitimate target or Thorson’s ability to fit passes in really tight spots, those plays were usually dead on arrival.

Which leads us to question number two…

Who steps up as a wide receiver target?

Heading into last season we knew there could be cause for concern with this position group, but there was hope that Christian Jones would be able to return to form for his senior season. It was a difficult season for Jones, who only caught 23 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. As mentioned, Vitale, the superback, was Thorson’s top target, but things got fuzzy after that.

But now with Jones and Miles Shuler gone, this spring is an opportunity for Thorson to begin to build a report with his wide receivers and hopefully come out of that with a new number one.

The most obvious choices as of now would be Cameron Dickerson, Mike McHugh and Austin Carr because of their experience in the system and with Thorson. McHugh was a fairly reliable but too rarely used option last season and Dickerson didn’t see many targets until late in the season when injuries started to pile up a bit.

The player to keep an eye on is Austin Carr. Thorson and Carr did develop a nice relationship last season and Carr was by far their most explosive receiver, averaging 18.8 yards per catch. At 6’1”, 195, Carr doesn’t quite have the WR-1 build, but if he continues to develop as a slot receiver with speed in the middle of the field, he could open things up for one or two other players.

There is Flynn Nagel, the promising young player who only saw a little bit of action in their first five games before being injured for the rest of the season. But Nagel is another small target coming in at 5’11”. Jelani Roberts was rarely used as a downfield target, but his speed was used all too often (and predictably so every time he was on the field) on end-arounds.

So who are those other players? Well as it stands they may not have been on the active roster last season. It’s possible we’ll need to be surprised by someone who makes a name for themselves this spring.

Whether it is someone returning or hitting the field for the first time next season, the receivers need to be the team’s most improved group if Northwestern wants any chance at another good season.

Part two coming next week…