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Northwestern Football Unit Breakdowns: Quarterback

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Projected Starter

Kain Colter, Junior

Technically, Colter isn’t a returning starter, but he played in every game in 2011 and started in place of Dan Persa to start the season when Persa was hurt.

Colter emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats and contributed across the board on offense, totaling 673 passing yards, 654 rushing yards and 466 receiving yards. He’s a better athlete than Persa and former NU quarterback Mike Kafka, but now he needs to work on being a better quarterback, not just a better athlete.

Colter was outstanding at avoiding pressure and making plays with his feet last season and he didn’t make many mistakes — he threw just one interception and completed 67 percent of his passes. However, he rarely made difficult throws, and instead opted to “run first” when given the option.

This spring, Colter worked on becoming a better passer, and despite a below-average performance in the spring game, he said he was becoming more comfortable as a passer.

However, that spring game performance showed there is still a lot of work left to be done. If Colter can become a top passer, and to use a football cliché, “make all the throws,” he will be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Whether he can make that jump is still up in the air.

Backups

Trevor Siemian, Sophomore

Siemian saw time at quarterback last year behind Colter, but played sparingly with the exception of a near-comeback in a loss to Army. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes in 2011 for 256 yards and three touchdowns.

While the starting job will almost certainly go to Colter, Siemian has a chance to be a contributor on offense in 2012, especially if he continues to build on an impressive spring. He’s arguably a more polished passer than Colter, so NU may develop certain packages where Siemian plays quarterback and Colter lines up as a wide receiver.

Siemian is a solid runner, but not nearly as elusive as Colter, which may ultimately keep him at No. 2 on the depth chart. However, in passing situations, NU could benefit from having Siemian at quarterback and Colter at receiver. If his passing skills continue to improve, expect him to see more of the field in 2012.

Zack Oliver, Redshirt Freshman

Oliver is a pro-style quarterback, which is atypical of Northwestern QBs, but he had some hype coming into Evanston, ranking as a three-star recruit, and at 6-4, 235 pounds, he certainly has the frame to be a solid Big Ten passer.

After redshirting in 2011, Oliver had an up-and-down spring. He showed flashes of potential and perfectly squeezed some passes into small windows, but also made a lot of mistakes, which is part of being a freshman

Don’t expect Oliver to make a major impact this season; he doesn’t fit the offense and doesn’t have the consistency or experience yet. However, offensive coordinator Mick McCall does a good job of tailoring offenses to his quarterbacks, so if Oliver improves, he could earn a starting spot down the road.

PJ Carollo, Redshirt Freshman

A native of nearby Lake Bluff, Ill., Carollo was a walk-on in 2011 and redshirted for his freshman campaign.

He’ll head into 2012 competing with Oliver for the third-string job, but will likely end up fourth out of NU’s four current quarterbacks.

Concerns

The big concern here is how everyone will fit into the offense. Can Colter improve his passing? Will Siemian and Colter split reps if Colter’s passing doesn’t improve?

If Colter can improve his passing by the start of the season, then he will be the sole starter, although there will likely be some packages where he lines up at receiver. If Colter can’t “make all the throws,” the Siemian’s role will increase and NU could end up juggling two quarterbacks.

Right now, they both have different skill sets, so McCall’s challenge will be to find the best way they can complement each other.

Prognosis

It’s impossible to tell whether Colter will have improved his passing skills by the fall, but with a lot of time to work he should have improved at least somewhat. While he won’t be among the Big Ten’s best passers, he should get a majority of the snaps and will be dangerous, as always, with his feet.

Expect NU to get Siemian a decent number of reps at quarterback — much more than last year — in order to use Colter at receiver and take advantage of Siemian’s strong arm on deep throws.

If NU can figure out how to use both quarterbacks to their strengths, this could be a dangerous group in 2012.