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Why Kain Colter Should and Will Play Quarterback for Northwestern

Kain Colter is going into his third season of seeing considerable time as a starting quarterback at Northwestern, but some people still don't see him as one. Last year, numerous people called for Trevor Siemian to be the starting quarterback, solely because he's a better passer. Yesterday, Scout's Nick Medline told Lake The Posts, "I just sometimes wish that they'd move Kain Colter out wide permanently." Not to slight Medline — plenty of respectable journalists have had the same opinion, and he does some nice work covering NU — but that doesn't make much sense.

So today, I'm going to take on the absurd suggestion made by many fans and media members that Colter cannot, should not or is not fit to play quarterback. And I'll do so with four main points:

1. There is a bias against running quarterbacks

For some reason, football fans in general have a bias against quarterbacks who get their yards by running the ball rather than throwing it. Siemian is billed as a "traditional" quarterback, therefore he's seen as a better quarterback. He's a good quarterback and should play as much as he has — more on that later — but that doesn't mean Colter should play less. The bias against Colter comes down to the kinds of plays he chooses to run on, while Siemian chooses to pass.

In typical passing situations — that is, situations when Siemian and most other quarterbacks would always look to pass the ball — Colter has a much greater tendency to run, some of them by design (of course, many are not be design, too). This would be troubling if Colter was unsuccessful on those plays, but he's actually been quite successful, especially on the run. So that begs the question: why do you care how your quarterback gets yards, as long as he is successful in getting them? The answer: you shouldn't care.

2. Colter can throw

Colter was asked a lot this spring about his ability to throw the ball, and he finally interjected at one point and said, "I can throw." And he's right. Nobody is saying Colter is a better passer than Siemian, but he's not bad at throwing the ball. Siemian had more attempts and yards, but Colter actually had a better completion percentage — 67 percent to 59 percent — and had more touchdowns — eight to six. Colter's higher completion percentage is due to his tendency to throw shorter, higher-percentage passes, but why is that a bad thing? It means he knows his limits and he makes smart throws. It's not that Colter can't throw; rather, he doesn't have to throw to get yards. That's a good thing for NU's offense.

3. The two-quarterback system worked

People were skeptical of NU's two-quarterback system last year because people are always skeptical of two-quarterback systems. As the saying goes, "If you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterbacks." That may be the case when you're juggling Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, but the key difference for NU is that it chose to play two good quarterbacks, rather than many teams who are forced to play two bad quarterbacks.

It's hard to argue that the two-quarterback system didn't work well last year. Of course, it took NU's coaches some time to figure out how to use each player more effectively, and the formula will continue to evolve. But a lack of offense didn't lose the Wildcats any games last year, and the two-quarterback system made them difficult to prepare for. One Big Ten coach, speaking anonymously to Athlon Sports, reflected that sentiment:

“They have some good receivers. They know what they want to do on offense. Their line functions well together. The combination of (Kain) Colter and (Trevor) Siemian at quarterback is unique. They are both good. And I like how they use them. It makes you prepare for both guys, which is hard to do. It’s two different gameplans. I know they have used them both in the game at the same time. Colter can be a weapon as a slot receiver who can make some plays."

So yes, Colter can be used as a weapon at slot receiver when Siemian is in the game. That's a given, and it worked well at times last year, particularly against Indiana. However, moving him to receiver permanently and getting rid of the two-quarterback system would take a lot of the versatility out of NU's offense. Moreover, it hurts other offensive weapons, like Venric Mark...

4. Colter makes Venric Mark much better

Colter may have *only* rushed for 891 yards last year, but he was responsible for many more, particularly because of how well he and Venric Mark ran the zone read and the option. For those who need a refresher, here's how the zone read works, in a nutshell:

The quarterback "reads" the backside defensive end, handing the ball off if the end stays put and keeping it himself if the end crashes toward the running back. This effectively takes that player out of the play. For more on that, we go a little bit deeper into the explanation in our breakdown of NU's use of zone blocking. It's the same concept with the option — taking a defender out of the play — though the execution is different.

Colter is extremely good at reading opposing defenses, making the zone read a deadly play for the Wildcats. It opens up more holes for Mark because the defenses can't commit to stopping just him — they also have to account for Colter. With Siemian in the game, defenses can cheat to stop Mark — this will be especially critical in short-yardage situations — making Mark much less effective. Siemian said that he only kept the ball on a read play on one occasion — a touchdown run in the Gator Bowl, actually — which means the zone read loses its most important element when he runs it in place of Colter: it allows defenders to stay in the play by choosing to attack the only real threat to run.


Colter may not be your traditional quarterback, and he's even acknowledged that if he wants to play in the NFL, he's probably going to have to play receiver. However, his skill set has worked for Northwestern and it has made the entire offense more effective. When he plays quarterback — specifically, when NU uses both quarterbacks — the Wildcats are a better team. With that in mind, who cares how the yards and wins are coming?