At one point in the not-so-distant past, Northwestern seemed to be on the ascendancy in the Big 10. The Wildcats won their first bowl game in 63 years in 2012 and began 2013 with four consecutive wins in route to a No. 16 ranking. Their fortunes changed dramatically as they went on to finish 2013 with a losing record as well as 2014 — entering an era of irrelevance in the conference. With 2015 quickly approaching, quarterback Clayton Thorson gives the Wildcats their best chance to return to Big 10 relevance.
Northwestern is currently in the midst of an open quarterback competition between Thorson, senior Zach Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti. Oliver is the most experienced of the three, though he only has one career start under his belt. Though the opening-day starter will most likely not be announced till days prior to September 7, there is already some talk that Thorson is the favorite to be named the starter.
Thorson, who redshirted last season, was one of the more exciting prospects to commit to Northwestern in recent memory, as well as a testament to the expert recruiting ability of Pat Fitzgerald. A local product out of Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, Ill., Thorson was ranked No. 7 among pocket passers in the class of 2014. In his senior season in 2013, he tossed for 2,809 yards with 29 touchdown passes. He also ran for 567 yards with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Though officially considered a pocket passer, Thorson has elite athletic and physical attributes to excel as a dual-threat quarterback in the Northwestern offensive scheme. He also boasts great size at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. These skills give the Wildcats the leader under center to allow the offense to flourish, and ultimately take a few steps forward in the conference.
The major factor that should give Northwestern football fans confidence that Clayton Thorson can return the program to relevance and a run of success over the next couple seasons is Fitzgerald’s success in developing dual-threat quarterbacks throughout his tenure.
Over the past few seasons, Northwestern has had a series of speedy quarterbacks with strong throwing abilities succeed under Fitzgerald. These quarterbacks include Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and most recently Kain Colter – all who thrived in Northwestern’s spread option scheme and led the Wildcats to four winning seasons.
None of those quarterbacks, came to Evanston with the same potential that Thorson promises to bring the Wildcats. His skills likely surpass those of his predecessors at the quarterback position, and he very likely can transform those physical tools into success at the collegiate level.
While Thorson has yet to be named the starter, he should be seen as the best candidate to start for Northwestern this season. Deciding on Thorson as the starter would be the smartest move for the Wildcats as he boasts a combination of the arm strength of Zach Oliver with the running ability of Matt Alviti.
None of these quarterbacks are particularly experienced – with the exception of Oliver – the talent of Thorson should easily win out over the fact that Oliver is a senior. Oliver’s only start in 2015 was a dismal performance against Illinois where he threw three interceptions. Alviti, on the other hand, doesn’t boast the arm strength to give Northwestern the best chance to succeed.
Fitzgerald could easily opt to share snaps between two quarterbacks throughout the season as he did so in 2013 splitting time at the starting spot between Colter and Trevor Simien. That may always be an option, though doing so would only lessen Thorson’s workload and negate his development. Northwestern’s success this season and going forward depends on making a solid commitment to him.
Northwestern clearly underperformed the last two seasons – much of that the result of injuries and inconsistency at the quarterback position. Naming Clayton Thorson as the starting quarterback, and making a real commitment to him, gives the Wildcats the best chance to contend in the Big 10 and return to relevance once again.
Dan is a Big 10 Football Beat Writer for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.