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Assessing Northwestern's quarterback competition

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Northwestern's quarterback battle is still an open competition, but the youngest of the three contenders looks like the front runner for the job.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

As spring practice wraps up, little has changed in Northwestern's quarterback competition. Zack Oliver, Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti are all splitting first-team reps, and Pat Fitzgerald asserts that it is still an open competition.

The media and the fans got a good look at NU's three signal callers Saturday at the Wildcats' open practice. All three had some struggles, but of the trio, Clayton Thorson definitely looked the best.

Thorson is an interesting happy medium between Oliver and Alviti, possessing both a strong arm and the mobility to extend plays or even run some option. Thorson showed great arm strength and accuracy when throwing on the run Saturday.

Our current depth chart projections have Thorson slotted as the starter for Northwestern, but it's awfully early. The coaches obviously have a much better assessment of the quarterback situation since this was the first open practice, and neither the coaches nor the quarterbacks will hint at who might be winning the try-out.

However, through combining what we saw on the field last year, in practice and games, with recruiting profiles, the 6-foot-4 Thorson appears to be the front runner for the starting spot. Thorson's ability to create with his feet could definitely open up the playbook from last year's attack under Siemian.

Zack Oliver seems to be a close second behind Thorson in the QB pecking order. The first thing that will come to mind about Oliver is his performance against Illinois last year, a game in which he was picked off three times and had an adjusted QBR of 4.7. Remove that from memory because it should not play a big role in this competition.

Pat Fitzgerald will be eight months and hundreds of practice hours removed from that game when he has to make a decision on the starting quarterback. A lot will have changed for the offense, not just at QB, but in the scheme, the offensive line as well as the wide receiver corps when September rolls around.

Oliver, like Thorson, has a strong arm and stands at 6-foot-4, but he's got 30 pounds on the freshmen. Oliver proved against Illinois that he can use that size to bowl over defenders, but he's the furthest thing from quick. If he wins the job, it's because his accuracy and pocket decision-making made vast improvements from last season.

It would be most surprising to see Matt Alviti starting for NU when they begin the 2015 season against Stanford, but he's probably the most likely to just be on the field in some capacity. Alviti played in all of Northwestern's final four games last season, primarily replacing Trevor Siemian in running situations.

I don't expect to see a true two-quarterback system, like with Siemian and Colter in 2012, but the Wildcats will certainly utilize Alviti in some way. The key will be to implement some passing plays when Alviti enters. Last season, the play-calling was pretty one-dimensional while Alviti was under center.

Among the quarterback trio, Alviti has struggled the most with accuracy in practices that we've seen. He primarily practiced with second- and third-teamers last year but wasn't as consistent as his competitors. Fitzgerald did say Alviti is more comfortable in the system though, and he broke off a huge run Saturday.

A decision on the quarterback situation is probably very far away, and at this point, our best guess at the starter is just a conjecture. But Clayton Thorson has played well in practice and fits NU's quarterback mold perfectly. A redshirt freshman may very well be slinging the ball around Ryan Field in the fall.