Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

The quarterback competition is over. It ended week one of the 2015 season when Clayton Thorson did this against Stanford.

Now the question is not about who will be starting at quarterback for Northwestern, but will we see progress from the man who was thrust into the biggest spotlight on the field last season. Thorson saw his share of struggles in his redshirt freshman season, but he did enough in leading the Wildcats to ten wins to ensure the job would be his heading into his sophomore year.

“A year ago at this time we had three quarterbacks in the race, and I couldn’t tell you who was gonna win the job,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Media Day. “So now you fast forward to spring ball, all through summer and now to training camp. Clayton’s the guy. Our chemistry, our trust, our timing, our rhythm is improved.”

Thorson impressed last season with his legs but struggled consistently through the air. His 50.8% completion percentage was second worst in the Big Ten, where he ranked near the bottom in just about every statistical category among Big Ten quarterbacks. He was 12th in yards, 16th in touchdowns and dead last in yards per attempt and QB rating.

thorsonIt wasn’t all on Thorson though, whose struggles were expected for such a young player in a big spot with a deficient offense around him. He was sacked 22 times, 4th most in the conference behind a revolving door offensive line that struggled to protect him while it dealt with injuries throughout the entire season.

Then there were his weapons, or lack thereof. Aside from Dan Vitale, a receiving core that struggled with drops did not help Thorson do his job. And now with Vitale gone along with fellow seniors Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Mike McHugh, it will once again be on Thorson’s shoulders to create for his wide receivers.

Now Thorson is a year older with an entire season and bowl game under his belt, and his growth is getting attention from his coach and teammates.

“He’s telling people what to do, and everyone respects that because he knows he’s a starter,” said running back Justin Jackson, who will again play the primary role in Northwestern’s offensive attack. “He’s come in with the swagger which is really good, which is what our offense needs. He’s coming in firing on all cylinders.”

But it is going to take more than just confidence for Northwestern to repeat the success they found last year. Thorson is going to have to show improvements in about every aspect of the passing game and show that he can be a more accurate passer with a matured sense of decision making with the ball in his hands.

With Zach Oliver gone, Matt Alviti will come into the season as Thorson’s primary backup with TJ Green and Lloyd Yates splitting third string, but make no mistake of it; the job belongs to Thorson.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to him,” Fitzgerald said. “He managed a lot of things, he had some highs, some lows and a lot in between but he won ten football games as a red shirt freshman and that’s pretty spectacular.”

Now Thorson has gotten an entire off-season where he doesn’t have to split the snaps with anyone. No longer is he looking over his shoulder. But if Northwestern wants another winning season and a shot at the Big Ten West title, the ball will be in Thorson’s hands and this time he will be expected to deliver.