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Northwestern's most important players: No. 4, Kain Colter

We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown. 

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Quarterback might be the default “No. 1 most important player” for most college football teams. QBs typically have more complex and more frequent responsibilities – they not only touch the ball on every snap, but make crucial decisions both at the line of scrimmage and after the ball is snapped – than any other offensive player on the field. Without a good one, your chances of winning decrease dramatically. It is universally accepted that quarterback is the most important position in football; arguing against this basic maxim is silly.

That holds for Northwestern, too, only the superlative must be tweaked to reflect an accurate portrait of the Wildcats’ unique quarterback operation. NU plays with two quarterbacks. Kain Colter, the subject of this Most Important Wildcat installment, is typically referred to as the “run-first” QB while Trevor Siemian is used more commonly on passing downs. Towards the end of 2012, after a few tumultuous stretches of clunky quarterback play earlier in the season (particularly in the fourth quarter, and even more particularly against Penn State), coordinator Mick McCall began to strike a healthy balance between run-first Colter-led plays and passes under Siemian. Rotations became natural and situational, much less forced and counterintuitively awkward.

The reason Colter ranks higher on this list than Siemian has a lot to do with the offensive staple (the read option) Northwestern installed to such great effect last season. When McCall unveiled it in preseason camp, the option seemed like a cute little schematic ruse, a package designed to catch defenses by surprises every once in a while. We quickly learned that the Colter-Venric Mark option was much, much more than that. Colter and Mark nearly mastered the timing and spacing required to execute the option with few, if any, self-inflicted errors. The option was particularly effective in the red zone, which I’ll venture to say is, you know, sort of a big deal.

To validate this ranking, Colter can’t be pigeonholed into an option-only role. And, when you look at the numbers (particularly Colter’s 68 percent completion percentage, or even his contributions as a receiver, for that matter), he’s clearly more versatile than his visible success on option read plays might lead one to believe. In 2013, Colter’s development in other areas is what will keep him ranked near or at the top of Northwestern’s list of most important players.

First up, Colter needs to at the very least provide the threat, if not the successful execution, of deep passing capability. In piling up 872 yards on 101-for-149 passing  last season, Colter averaged just 5.0 yards per attempt and, on third down situations between 7 and 9 yards, rushed the ball as many times as he threw it (12). Not all of this is Colter’s fault: the receiving corps needs to be able to find creases and get open downfield more often. Colter simply needs to deliver on target. If he does, watch out.

A more passing-savvy Colter would take Northwestern’s two-quarterback system to a whole new level. Last season, opponents could take comfort in Colter’s passing limitations, crowding the line of scrimmage and bringing extra defensive backs to snuff out option plays. Adding a reliable deep passing element to his skillset would make Northwestern even more difficult to predict. Colter, already one of the most dynamic players in the country, would become even more so, and the Wildcats offense would improve accordingly.