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Northwestern football Post-Spring Unit Breakdowns: Quarterback

Returning starters: Kain Colter (Sr), Trevor Siemian (Jr)

Others returning: Zack Oliver (So), P.J. Carollo (So), Christian Salem (RS Fr)

Incoming recruit: Matt Alviti 

Depth Chart Projection:

1A. Kain Colter

1B. Trevor Siemian

3. Zack Oliver

4. P.J. Carollo

5. Christian Salem

Redshirt – Matt Alviti

Explaining the Depth Chart: 

An explanation is only necessary to those still convinced Northwestern has some sort of “controversy” at its quarterback position. It’s pretty simple stuff – Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are co-starters that Pat Fitzgerald and his staff feel comfortable rotating throughout the course of a game. There are situations where Colter’s mobility and ability to break big plays can punish opposing defenses by exposing an obvious hole, or where Siemian is called into action to attack a weak cornerback on a deep route over the top. It all comes back to defensive circumstance – the Wildcats adjust to what’s configured in front of them by selecting the quarterback who’s best suited to advance the ball against that specific front. Colter may “start” more games in that he’s more often than not the guy taking Northwestern’s first offensive snap, but the designation is mostly trivial. Both of these guys are going to play.

Precise division of labor and snap allotments are not part of Northwestern’s offensive identity. The quarterbacks are subject to rotation; it’s figuring out when and why those rotations occur that leads to a greater understanding of coordinator Mick McCall’s offense. Backup Zack Oliver took a major developmental step this offseason and entered camp with a firm grasp on the offense, firing passes crisply and more accurately than ever before, and even, at various points, scrambling for nice chunks of yardage. With two first-team quarterback slots available, Oliver could see extensive playing time should Colter or Siemian suffer an injury at any point this season.

Stock Up: Kain Colter

There’s an element of unpredictability to Northwestern’s offense. Having the ability to roll out two different quarterbacks, each introducing a different range of deep and short-look possibilities, can leave even the most seasoned defenses feeling lost, grasping for air, at the mercy of McCall’s play-calling whims. Watching film – lots and lots of film – can help alleviate the problem. Here’s one obvious empirical conclusion: a common theme with the Wildcats’ offense last season was limiting the number of deep throws Colter was asked to make.

Whether because of lingering soreness or sapped throwing velocity from a severe highschool shoulder injury or just plain old inaccurate passing skills, the Wildcats withhold almost all of their threatening deep pass plays from Colter’s repertoire. You can almost see it coming; third and long, enter Siemian, every time. Instilling in Colter the ability to make those same throws would open up a new world of deep pass possibilities for the Wildcats, and defenses – already befudled by Colter’s option playmaking – would be forced to account for a vastly unconquerable range of pass and run options. They would become overstretched. An already potent offense would become more so. Colter and Siemian would benefit.

The scenario I describe probably won’t ever truly take root – it’s idealistic and demanding and there’s just not enough time, period. But Colter has definitely improved his passing, no doubt, and it’s getting close to the point where his once-overwhelmingly-errant proportion of deep throws is settling into something closer to a healthy mean. Even still, Siemian is the more polished passer, and will almost surely remain so leading up to the fall, but Colter’s improved passing is not to be ignored, if only for the range of possibilities it potentially opens up and the new ream of challenges it could create for opposing defenses.

Stock Down: No one

Both starters have made noticeable improvements since bowl season. Colter tightened his passing. Siemian was proactive in using his legs to escape pressure in the pocket, and also added another layer of polish to his refined deep-ball mechanics. Oliver looks like a very capable backup, which isn’t something you could always say about the sophomore from Baton Rouge, La.

There is nothing negative to report here. The only group made worse off by these developments are the 12 defenses scheduled to line up and scheme against the Wildcats QBs this Fall. Whatever Northwestern’s offense was last season, it is now better – with both Colter and Siemian enhancing their skill sets around every margin – this season, and that makes the jobs of opposing defenses exceedingly difficult (on top of what was an already tricky offense to cover last season) every time they line up opposite this QB-rotating attack.

Position Battle To Watch: None

In case there was any remaining confusion about Northwestern’s quarterback situation, allow me to make this very clear: Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are not competing for a decisive “starter” label. They are listed at 1A and 1B for a reason – either player can start, both will play a large-enough fraction of total snaps to rightly claim starters status and, on a more practical level, why make a distinction at all between two variously contributing first-team quarterbacks?

When you really think about it, quarterback is just another position. If there’s some confusion about the starters tag, why does that confusion demand a clear resolution? Why is that something Fitzgerald needs to clear up each and every week? Colter and Siemian will be under center this fall. Who starts each game is less important than the overall timing and complexity and execution of the offense.

Biggest offseason question: Will Colter Throw The Ball Downfield More Often?

Most of Colter’s passing work last season came on first and second downs. That falls in line with every general characterization of the Wildcats’ offense – Colter completed 67 percent of his passes, but when the Wildcats face third and long situations, or just needed a deep pass play to spark an otherwise stagnant drive, Siemian’s arm talents were better equipped to find tight seams in pass defenses and pinpoint receivers downfield. Siemian was the designated deep-ball thrower; Colter’s passing diet consisted of short-to-intermediate throws, most of them simple and easy to manage.

This dynamic may or may not change this season, but if coaches do elect to give Colter a more daring assortment of passing plays this season, it won’t be difficult to understand why. Colter’s passes grew tighter and more accurate as spring workouts wore on, and the same drastic overthrows you saw last spring were noticeably absent from 7-on-7 drills and other passing exercises. The true test is real competition, not non-pressure practice environments. Colter’s passing has improved, but the only way to measure the depth of those improvements is by allowing Colter to push his limits this Fall, even if it’s against the relatively weaker second half of Northwestern’s nonconference schedule (Western Michigan – Sept. 14, Maine – Sept. 21).

That will allow Colter to take his offseason work and see whether it endures the gauntlet of intense game situations, and whether his improvements are something coaches can rationally consider when drawing up gameplans and quarterback splits and throw-run options.

Post-Spring Breakdowns So Far

Offensive lineDefensive lineWide Receiver, Linebacker, running back, superback

Spring Links

Analyzing Northwestern’s Situational Quarterback Use

Quarterback Rotation Will Continue, But Roles Still Not Set

Northwestern will major in the option, with same spread philosophy