It is often said that the jump between a player’s freshman season and sophomore season is the biggest one. The game slows down, and the player becomes more confident and settles into his role.
When it comes to Clayton Thorson, the Northwestern Wildcats had better hope that rings true. If the early returns from this offseason are any indication, it will.
"A year ago at this time we had three quarterbacks in the race, and I couldn’t tell you who was gonna win the job," Pat Fitzgerald said at Media Days. "We’re splitting the reps up by three, which means all three guys are getting two-thirds reps off. So now you fast forward to spring ball, all through summer and now to training camp. Clayton’s the guy. Our chemistry, our trust, our timing, our rhythm is improved."
While Thorson goes into his second season as the starter, he’s really only going into his first offseason as such. Last year, Thorson did not officially beat out his competitors—then-senior Zack Oliver and then-sophomore Matt Alviti—until about a week before the opener against Stanford. He went on to start every game of the 2015 campaign with varying levels of success. His accuracy and decision making were suspect at times, but his offensive line and wide receivers certainly didn’t help him either. He also produced some very stretches of football. He accounted for over 90 percent of the offense (and the only two offensive touchdowns) against Nebraska to lead Northwestern to bowl eligibility. Earlier in the year, he piloted a comeback against the pesky Ball State Cardinals with three touchdown passes after a slow start.
The physical tools have always been there for the rising redshirt sophomore signal caller. He’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds—ideal stature for a quarterback—with impressive speed and running ability. By joining Justin Jackson in the backfield, Thorson completed a talented, highly-touted backfield. But now he has to develop mentally.
"He seems a lot more comfortable back there," cornerback Matt Harris said. "His leadership has definitely taken over. He’s taken over the offense, and Clayton—being the guy that he is—he’s a competitor, so he’s doing whatever he can to be in the best position that he can be. Just understanding defenses, he’s definitely grown as an individual."
Jackson echoed his teammate.
"He’s telling people what to do, and everyone respects that because he knows he’s a starter. He’s come in with the swagger which is really good, which is what our offense needs. He’s coming in firing on all cylinders."
With impressive natural skills and improved knowledge comes confidence, something Thorson lacked last year, partially due to his uncertainty as to whether he would actually be the starter and partially due to that just being who he was—a quieter, more reserved guy. That’s not the case any more.
"He’s a guy that self-realized that he needed to be more present with his teammates. It doesn’t mean he had to change his character," Fitzgerald said. "He needed to be more present to build more trust and to build more camaraderie. He wasn’t doing anything wrong; he just wasn’t doing anything. He’s a homebody. To see that shows great self-awareness and great growth. He’s done a really, really good job."
After I finished up with Harris and began walking away from his table, a reporter asked the corner something to the effect of, "Who do you think will be some of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten this year?"
The senior cornerback thought for a few seconds.