As of right now, the three-horse race for Northwestern's starting quarterback job is still ongoing. But Saturday, it was fifth-year senior Zack Oliver taking the first snaps for the Wildcat offense during the intrasquad scrimmage up in Kenosha (the best place on Earth).
Oliver impressed on Saturday. And even though Thorson looked decent as well, Oliver's performance led us to believe that the fifth-year senior really is in the mix to start the opener against Stanford.
To many, the thought of Oliver starting for Northwestern is troubling, even scary, and that's mostly due to recency bias. Oliver is best remembered for his four turnovers in four possessions — and five overall — in the season-ending loss to Illinois. That's the last time we saw Oliver in an NU uniform.
However, he saw meaningful action before that too, taking over for Siemian with more than a half to go in West Lafayette against Purdue, and even before that, against Northern Illinois in Week 2, when Siemian left with an ankle injury.
So of the three quarterbacks, Oliver really is the only one we can analyze. He has a strong arm (probably the strongest of the three candidates), a big frame, and five years' worth of experience in Evanston, the same as Thorson and Alviti combined. Based on the admittedly small sample size from the 2014 season, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder has some clear strengths and weaknesses:
STRENGTHS: Size, big arm, skillful arm, experience, willing and able to take shots downfield, usually sets feet well, moves decently in pocket
WEAKNESSES: Lack of mobility, inaccurate on the move, forces passes, tendency to miss receivers high, ball security
But what can looking back at Oliver's abbreviated time on the field in 2014 tell us? Does it paint the picture of a QB who can lead the Wildcats to seven or eight wins in 2015?
Here's another way of stating that question: Which is the real Zack Oliver: The one that nearly brought NU back from the dead against Northern Illinois and managed the Purdue game stoically? Or the one that flopped against Illinois?
First, a look at those aforementioned strengths:
NOTE: All video credits go to the Big Ten Network except for the first highlight, which is courtesy of NU Sports.
Let's start with that NIU game, during which Oliver only threw two passes. But, down two scores and in need of a quick touchdown, this was one of them:
Oliver's strike to Pierre Youngblood-Ary really exemplifies Oliver's arm strength. This ball is absolutely on a line and very accurate. And that is not an easy throw to make. This play represents the premier facet of Oliver's game, and one that we're not sure either of the other two candidates offer.
Now fast forward to the third quarter of the Purdue game, after Oliver had been forced into duty by another Siemian injury. Skip forward to the 35-second mark of the following clip:
Purdue is in zone here, and Oliver reads that excellently. Rather than leading Kyle Prater in stride, he throws Prater open, into the gap between the cornerback and the safety.
Shortly after, he goes back to Prater twice more, and Prater delivers with catches both times.
In that medium depth range (11-20 yards), Oliver is very comfortable throwing across the middle to a big target like Prater, who stands 6-foot-5. As you'll see later, however, he struggles with smaller wideouts and, well, pretty much every wide receiver is smaller than Prater.
Before we get to Oliver's weaknesses though, a few words on the read option. One of the narratives of the QB competition is that with Alviti or Thorson, the Wildcats can run zone read, because those two quarterbacks are threats with their legs, while Oliver is not. But in the first of the two above clips, watch how Purdue's linebackers react to the play action fake. That shows that read option passes can have a similar effect to the one that the more traditional zone read has on a defense. Those read plays can still be a part of the offense with Oliver.
Oliver is not a threat to run though, and that's where we start with his weaknesses. After handing the ball off on his first few plays against Purdue, the defense keys on Jackson, so Oliver keeps:
Oliver actually has a fair amount of room to run. But he's certainly not the most nimble guy, and he's stopped for a short gain. The read option will likely remain a part of the offense no matter who wins the starting job, but it will be less effective with Oliver running it.
Oliver also struggled when forced out of the pocket on traditional passing plays:
Here's a prime example. Once he escapes pressure, he has some time to throw while moving to his right — something that should be a strength for right-handed quarterbacks. On this 3rd-and-13 attempt, Oliver should be able to find Mike McHugh, who had done a good job of coming back to the ball. But Oliver short hops the throw badly.
Now let's look at that disastrous Illinois game... which actually didn't exclusively display weaknesses. After a rough first half, Oliver, when given time, and when presented with open receivers, delivered some nice throws:
This is a ball from the pocket that is on time and on target, right in the chest of McHugh, who ran a really good route. This is a tougher throw than it may appear to be. Oliver has to get this ball over the linebackers but also keep it somewhat on a low trajectory with velocity so it gets to McHugh before the safety can step in. He does just that.
Here's another terrific ball from deep in the pocket. Skip ahead to the 27-second park of the following clip:
Oliver picks up a third and long with a bullet to Tony Jones on the outside. Oliver throws this pass just as Tony Jones is making his cut to the outside, and the ball placement gives Jones plenty of room to make the catch in bounds.
And here's another one under pressure:
This play shows Oliver's pocket presence. He keeps his eyes downfield even as the pocket begins to collapse to his right, makes a small step/hop forward and delivers a pretty ball to Jones. Also on display (once again) is his arm strength. Because there's not a lot of room in the pocket on this play, Oliver has to get this ball out without really being able to step up and set his feet. He gets the ball downfield accurately nonetheless.
He wasn't always able to do this though. In the first half of the same game, he crumbled under pressure:
The first turnover of this dreadful day is just a poor choice from Oliver, who never looked off Jones before firing into double coverage. It's unclear if he had other options, but this was certainly the wrong one.
And then, well, Northwestern — and Oliver specifically — began to self-destruct:
Oliver also was high on multiple throws across the middle of the field. The best example was one of his three interceptions. The blame here doesn't fall entirely on Oliver; but he has Jones open, and if he hits him in the chest, it's a completion. But whenever you throw into traffic and leave a ball high, bad things happen:
And finally, Oliver's lack of mobility proves to be critical. On a third-and-2 that the Wildcats absolutely have to convert, Oliver perhaps has space to make a play with his feet (or hit Jackson in the flat). But he doesn't:
Overall, Oliver's arm talent is clear. He usually looks somewhat comfortable in the pocket and is willing to take a hit. His problems throwing the ball come when he is outside of the pocket, when he's unable to set his feet. In Mick McCall's offense — and behind an offensive line with plenty of question marks — that's an issue. The quarterback has to be able to run well and throw on the run well, neither of which are strengths for the fifth-year senior.
Still, Oliver showed some ability in the game action he saw. He's a big guy who can easily scan over the defense from the pocket, and when he's in the pocket he can deliver some beautiful throws. He made quick decisions in Saturday's scrimmage, and told us that he has been running three or four miles per day and working on his lower body over the offseason to try to improve his mobility.
Overall, though, he must improve his decision-making and ball security. If he is the choice of Fitzgerald and McCall, it is likely because he is the most reliable option. If he has proven to coaches this offseason that he can be safe with the ball, don't be surprised to see No. 10 trot onto the field as the opening day starter.