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Northwestern Football Most Important Players — No. 1: Clayton Thorson/Matt Alviti/Zack Oliver


Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.

We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.

One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

At No. 1, we pooled all three potential starting quarterbacks, essentially to say that whoever wins the starting quarterback job is the most important player for Northwestern in 2015. The selection was nearly unanimous, so rather than debate, Ben Goren and Ian McCafferty explain their reasoning behind their No. 1 rankings:

Ben Goren (Thorviter rank: 1): So big surprise here, the quarterbacks are graded as the most important position. I know, I know, shock of the century.

But in all seriousness, any offseason discussion of Northwestern is going to start and end with the QB position, and for good reason. Despite being drafted in the 7th round, Trevor Siemian and the Northwestern passing attack was more or less nonexistant in 2014. NU QBs combined for just 9 touchdowns to 14 interceptions last season, and no QB threw multiple touchdowns in a game. Siemian's best game in terms of yardage was against Notre Dame when he threw for just 284, and that was on 48 pass attempts.

This season's QB competition is still technically open, and don't expect an official announcement for a long time.  We've predicted Thorson would win the job, but Alviti will probably get snaps, and don't count the senior Oliver out just yet. so Ian, no matter what the name of Northwestern's quarterback is, why is he the most important player for NU football in 2015?

Ian McCafferty (Thorviter rank: 1): Anybody that watched Northwestern's offense after Trevor Siemian got injured last year would agree that QB is the most important position on this team. In the only full game without Siemian last year, against Illinois, Northwestern threw the ball 42 times, and completed just 24 for 218 yards and 3 interceptions.

These numbers are pretty bad, and that's before you factor in that a lot of the yardage came against the prevent late in the game. Without a competent QB, Northwestern's offense devolves into a run-heavy attack, and that ground attack can be successful, but it needs a passing game to complement it. Justin Jackson had one of his best games last year against Illinois (24 rushes, 130 yards, 2 TDs) but the Wildcats still lost by 14. A solid QB is what makes the rest of the team tick, and it's something Northwestern sorely needs if the Wildcats want to be successful this season.

Ben Goren: So here's the weird thing though. Technically, Trevor Siemian was the 7th best QB in the 2015 draft class according to NFL GMs, and Northwestern still couldn't move the ball through the air. So there's a possibility that the lack of a passing attack is not really the QB's fault. And that's the end of my devil's advocate section.

I think, and the keyword here is think, that the Mick McCall offense needs a mobile QB to be effective. Mike Kafka may have passed the ball about 134 times in the Outback Bowl, but he could move, throw on the run, and tuck and go when the offense needed it. Dan Persa had wheels. Siemian/Colter, when healthy, provided a mobile body in the pocket. Last year, with a pocket QB in Siemian, and a dinged up one at that, the NU passing game was unrecognizable to the successful offenses in years prior. A lot of that was the lack of a QB running game and a lack of ability from Siemian to escape the pocket.

Enter Clayton Thorson/Matt Alviti. Both those guys, and even Zack Oliver to a much lesser degree, can move when they have to. Thorson, at least from a physical perspective, looks like a prototypical McCall QB: great arm and mobile. He, or whoever the starting QB ends up being, is going to have to be both.

Ian McCafferty: I really do think that the mobile QB is the key here. Without reiterating too much from above, whenever Northwestern has been successful in recent years, they've had a mobile QB. This comes down to more than just play calling, although that is important. I touched on it a bit when Zach Pereles and I debated the importance of the center position, but having a good QB improves line play as well. Or in this case, having a mobile QB helps hide some of the O-line's deficiencies. Northwestern usually has a solid line, but not anything Alabama level, where they can just plug any QB in and he'll be good. We saw Siemian, a pocket QB, take a lot of hits and, more importantly, sacks last season, partially due to lower mobility.

Anyway, whoever starts at QB will be more mobile than Siemian was last year and that will accomplish a number of things for this team: less sacks, more time for receivers to get open, possible option plays, etc. This, along with all the more obvious reasons, (hands off the ball, throws the ball, audibles, leadership stuff) makes QB Northwestern's most important position for 2015.

Ben Goren: Did you know that the quarterback is one of two positions that touches the ball on every play? Who would've guessed that position would be so important?

When Camp Kenosha rolls around, there are going to be daily stories about the QB battle, and it's not just because it's the sexiest position. It's one of the few positions without a clear starter and it's a position that Northwestern struggled with mightily last year. This offense can only go as far as the quarterback can take it, whoever he is.

Staff Rankings

Henry Bushnell: 1 | Josh Rosenblat: 1 | Zach Pereles: 1 | Ben Goren: 1 | Jason Dorow: 1 | Kevin Dukovic: 1 | Michael Odom: 1 | Ian McCafferty: 1 | Josh Burton: 2

Question for readers: Would you even give any thought to anybody else at No. 1?