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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Quarterbacks preview

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All eyes will be on Clayton Thorson's development.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. First up in our series of positional previews are the quarterbacks.

Personnel

Returning Starters: Clayton Thorson (So.)

Other returning contributors: Matt Alviti (Jr.), Daniel Kubiuk (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: T.J. Green, Lloyd Yates

Incoming freshmen: Aidan Smith

Overview

At this time last year, the quarterback question was perhaps the biggest one facing Northwestern football. Pat Fitzgerald named redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson the starter a week before the season-opener against Stanford, and despite an up-and-down and statistically disappointing season, Thorson started every game of a 10-win season.

WIth Zack Oliver out of eligibility, this job is certainly Thorson's to lose coming into spring practice. But Thorson's lack of progress throughout the year was worrisome and a hindrance to Northwestern's offense. His statistics for the year were pedestrian at best: 50.8 completion percentage, 1,522 yards, 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Advanced stats weren't kind to Thorson, either. Northwestern ranked 112th in passing S&P+ and 118th in Passing Success Rate.

Thorson did, however, run the ball with success. He was Northwestern's second leading rusher with 542 yards on an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. He showed breakout speed on a 42-yard touchdown run in the season-opening win over Stanford and should continue to pose a running threat in 2016 and beyond.

Northwestern's offense will likely still be largely centered on the running game. With both Justin Jackson and Warren Long also returning, the Wildcats return their top three rushers and possess one of the most talented groups of backs in the conference. But Thorson will need to improve as a passer if Northwestern is to improve upon last year's dreadful overall offensive performance.

Position Battles

Matt Alviti's role?

On one occasion in 2015, Fitzgerald showed he was willing to turn to a backup (Oliver) if he wasn't satisfied with Thorson's play. Will the same be true this year? Junior Matt Alviti will be that backup, and while Alviti was a 4-star recruit, his tenure in Evanston has been disappointing. Alviti came into 2015 spring camp with a legitimate chance to win the starting job, but was underwhelming and finished third in the competition. Northwestern hoped he'd be a dual-threat who'd keep defenses guessing, but Alviti simply hasn't gotten the most out of his talent.

There's a good chance that at some point in 2016, Alviti will have a chance to contribute, whether it's due to a Thorson injury or ineffectiveness. What he'd do with such an opportunity remains to be seen. Alviti was featured in some option sets in 2014, but was largely ineffective. He took no meaningful snaps a year ago. Can he carve out some sort of role for himself?

Third string

No disrespect to Daniel Kubiuk (who actually did get on the field in the 41-0 win over Eastern Illinois), but the competition for third string will come down to redshirt freshmen Lloyd Yates and TJ Green, and true freshman Aidan Smith.

Yates, from nearby Oak Park, Ill., was a three-star dual-threat quarterback who ran the scout team this year. He'll battle it out with Green, son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Green, and Smith, the most physically gifted of the three. Smith won't enroll until the summer though, so he won't participate in spring ball.

Burning question

Will Thorson improve from the pocket?

Thorson displayed excellent mobility and is an able runner, but both his accuracy and decision-making in the pocket were disappointing. In his first few games, Thorson was expectedly nervous, but he didn't settle down as the season wore on like one would expect. Far too often did he lock on to one receiver and miss others that were open. Thorson has a full offseason to go over film, identify his weaknesses and attack them. He should return as a calmer, more polished passer in 2016. Or at least you'd hope so.

Breakout player to watch

Clayton Thorson

It has to be. If it isn't, that's bad.

Depth chart projection

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Quarterback Clayton Thorson Matt Alviti Lloyd Yates