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Northwestern football position preview: Quarterbacks

Clayton Thorson — surprise! — is the focal point.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

First up is quarterback. Clayton Thorson is the undisputed starter — his first offseason as such — and he'll look to improve upon a rocky freshman campaign.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Clayton Thorson (So.) (13)
Key losses: Zack Oliver
Other returners: Matt Alviti (Jr.), Daniel Kubiuk (So.), Lloyd Yates (RS Fr.), TJ Green (RS Fr.)
Incoming freshmen: Aidan Smith

The position is much clearer than it was last year, when Thorson, Oliver and Alviti were all competing for the starting spot. Oliver ended up as Thorson's primary backup and got mostly spot duty, but his absence certainly won't hurt Northwestern too much. Thorson will have to be much improved from his freshman campaign, but he holds the top spot, and it would take disastrous circumstances for him to lose it. Behind him is Matt Alviti, who is the healthiest he's been at Northwestern after offseason surgery, and three youngsters. Aidan Smith will almost certainly redshirt.

Key Player

Clayton Thorson

Could it really be anyone else? Thorson topped our Most Important Player series almost unanimously and holds the key to the offense's improvement in 2016. He struggled with accuracy and decision making issues last season, but also showed major promise with his legs all season long, starting against Stanford.

Still, Thorson has a ways to go throwing the ball if last season is any indication. He struggled mightily against the blitz and made some poor reads throughout the season. If he can tighten up his accuracy and improve his ability to read defenses, it will really help this team as a whole.

Big Question

How much better will Clayton Thorson be?

If you couldn't tell, the theme of this preview — and likely of this season overall — is the development of Clayton Thorson. Statistically, he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the nation by pretty much any measure you'd like to use. His legs bailed him and his team out on multiple occasions. On the flip side, though, that's what's so enticing about Thorson. His legs are something defenses have to respect or else the rising sophomore can and will pull of game-changing plays. Nebraska was a perfect example: he had rushed of 68 and 49 yards in the first half (while only passing for 16 yards). In the second half, with every Cornhusker clearly wary of the threat that he could run, Thorson racked up 161 yards through the air. He showed promise at times, but those times were few and far in between.

Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Clayton Thorson Matt Alviti TJ Green OR Lloyd Yates

Thorson is the starter, but the depth behind him is somewhat intriguing. Alviti has seen some time in each of the past two seasons, but his lack of growth as a passer has stunted his overall development at Northwestern. Additionally, he has dealt with several injuries, including one that forced him to miss spring practice. Still, he's the clear No. 2 behind Thorson. In spring practice, TJ Green and Lloyd Yates split reps behind Thorson with Alviti sidelined, and both had good and bad moments. Green — son of former NFL gunslinger Trent — is more of a pure passer, but Yates is the superior athlete.