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Northwestern football summer guide: Quarterbacks

The most important position in football will be under the microscope in Evanston this season.

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. Up first are the quarterbacks — not only the most important players on the field, but, collectively, the biggest unknown for Northwestern.


Returning Starters (career starts): Zack Oliver (Sr.) (1)
Key Losses: Trevor Siemian
Other Returning Players: Matt Alviti (So.), Clayton Thorson (RS Fr.)

What more can be written about this group of unknowns, this collection of question marks? No member of the media has seen these three in anything resembling game-like conditions since the 2014 season ended, as the program has closed practice. And even then, Clayton Thorson -- the presumed lead horse in this race -- hasn't played a down of football since his senior season at Wheaton North in Illinois in 2013. Sure, the physical tools seem to be there but there's little that anyone can be certain about. There's also Matt Alviti, who played sparingly in Northwestern's final four games, but wasn't ready to use the full offense as his play calls were limited to read options. Zack Oliver, Trevor Siemian's backup, filled in for the oft-injured senior toward the end of 2014. He started against Illinois, throwing three interceptions and fumbling twice during the Wildcats 47-33 loss at home to lose out on bowl eligibility. It has been an open competition between the three since spring ball, and the battle will continue into fall camp.

Key Player

Clayton Thorson

The sixth-best dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2014, Thorson's time to shine could be in 2015. Although the redshirt freshman is the least experienced of the group, the job could very well be Thorson's to lose. His progression will not only tell a lot about Northwestern in 2015, but will also show what's in store down the line. Pat Fitzgerald has shown confidence in young quarterbacks before, starting Dan Persa for four seasons and allowing Kain Colter to see time at quarterback during his seasons as an underclassman. But while he may not start week one against Stanford, there's little doubt Thorson will play a major role in 2015.

Big Question

Could Northwestern go back to the two-quarterback system?

Yes, especially early on. Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall will have to get creative in using the strengths of their three quarterbacks. Oliver brings a big arm and not much else. Alviti brings a unique scrambling ability but had little success in designed runs in limited action last season. Thorson, from what little time we had to see him in practice in the fall, seemed to combine Oliver's arm strength with some of Alviti's speed. The most likely scenario at this point is using Alviti as a supplement to Thorson in a similar way to how Colter played early in his career.

Projected Depth Chart

Week One

1st String
Zack Oliver OR Matt Alviti OR Clayton Thorson

In typical Pat Fitzgerald fashion, Northwestern will likely use the "OR" tag on its depth chart for the quarterback position against Stanford. All three will probably see action and naming the starter will probably just be a formality holding just a small indication of who is leading the pack.

Actual Projection

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Clayton Thorson Matt Alviti Zack Oliver

By the middle of the season, it would be a troubling sign if Thorson did not takeover the starting job full-time. His competition isn't too stiff and a player of his projected talent should be able to grab the reigns. If he doesn't, that'll spell trouble for Northwestern in 2015.