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Assessing Northwestern's backup quarterback battle

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Trevor Siemian is the guy, but a more intriguing question is who backs him up?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

He's usually irrelevant. He's often the last player on a coach's mind. If everything goes to plan, he might not see the field all season. But nonetheless, he routinely seems like everybody's favorite player.

He is the backup quarterback.

And naturally, when his exact identity is unknown, there's a discussion to be had. That's the case at Northwestern heading into the 2014 season. Senior Trevor Siemian is the clear-cut starter, but the race for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart appears to be wide open. Redshirt junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti are the two contenders for the spot, and there haven't yet been any clear indications either way as to who will claim it.

Oliver, a former three-star recruit from Baton Rouge, La., is a pro-style quarterback in the Siemian mold who stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds. In his two non-redshirt seasons, he's been limited to mop-up duty. He appeared in three games in 2012, and two more last season, but all were late exhibitions rather than meaningful appearances.

Oliver is, however, more experienced than his competitor, Alviti. Alviti came to Evanston as one of NU's most coveted recruits ever. A 6-foot, 185-pound four-star dual threat QB from Park Ridge, Ill., his skillset contrasts that of Siemian and Oliver. His playmaking ability, with both feet and arm, has been the subject of enthusiastic endorsements from those who have seen him play. But many Northwestern fans aren't among that group yet. Alviti redshirted last year, so heading into 2014, while he still carries considerable hype, he for the most part remains an unknown commodity.

As for who should win the backup quarterback job, there's not much evidence to support an argument for either guy. Any speculation is, well, just that - speculation. The two split second team reps throughout the spring, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has not said anything definitive on the subject. But there is a case for either player.

Oliver is the "safer" option. He looked decent in spring practice, and has been working as an understudy with this coaching staff and its scheme for three years now. He's got the arm and the poise that Alviti doesn't (yet) have, and is generally more mature.

The biggest reason for the junior to potentially get the nod though may not have anything to do with Oliver himself. It may come down to offensive coordinator Mick McCall's plans for the coming season. With Kain Colter gone and Trevor Siemian as the "1" in a one-QB system rather than the "1a" or "1b" in a two-QB system, the offensive focus figures to shift more towards the pass. McCall will likely tailor his attack to Siemian's abilities - abilities which can be likened to those of Oliver. Oliver, therefore, would be the logical, like-for-like replacement for Siemian, should one be needed.

With Oliver at the helm, though, this offense would presumably be limited. With Alviti, the sky could be the limit. It's tough to doubt Alviti's potential, and during the spring, he would occasionally remind everyone of why he came to Evanston bearing such high expectations. But the key word is occasionally. After one practice, I wrote this about the freshman:

"Alviti showed glimpses Saturday of what makes him such an intriguing prospect. He exhibited his ability to extend plays with his legs, rolling out to his left on multiple occasions and at least once breaking into the secondary.

However, Alviti also made a play that was a perfect example of why he's not yet ready. In 7-on-7 red zone drills, the redshirt freshman had a receiver break open on a deep post route. If the throw was on time, it was a touchdown. But Alviti seemingly failed to read the play appropriately, and the opportunity passed. The ball did eventually come out, but it was late, and should've been picked off by Parrker Westphal."

At this point, those two paragraphs sum up Alviti pretty well. He's a talent, but his grasp on the playbook may not be tight enough, and his reading of the game may not be advanced enough after just one year at NU.

A lot could change in August and during the season. Alviti could make significant progress, and in doing so, attract the attention of Fitzgerald and McCall. But going into camp, my hunch is that, based on his experience and knowledge of the offense, Oliver is the No. 2.

A hunch is all it is though, and after all, this discussion might be proven pointless. Siemian has never missed a game due to injury in his career - though he did battle a heel ailment in 2013 - and there's nothing to suggest that his level of play would drop so far as to bring his starting spot into question. But if at some point Fitz does need to turn to a backup, it will be interesting to see whom he goes with.