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Countdown to Kenosha Question 4: How can Northwestern improve its offensive balance?

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It’s the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald’s team heading into camp.

We continue the countdown with No. 4: How can Northwestern improve its offensive balance?

On Tuesday, I wrote that Northwestern needs to “streamline its offensive philosophy” and become more explosive. Today, I will highlight some ways that Northwestern can improve its offensive balance and become a more effective on offense.

More play-action passes

Last year, Northwestern had some success with play-action and occasionally caught opposing defenses off-guard. Main highlights of this include that one deep throw against Illinois and a few plays against Ball State. When an offense is so reliant on the run, mixing in more play-action passes and play fakes could definitely help to bring balance to the offense. If the opposing defense expects Northwestern to run the ball on first down every time, it would be prudent to call a play-action pass just to keep the defense from constantly bearing down.

Simply asking for more play-action is obviously easier said than done. In order to run such plays successfully, the offensive line has to be able to protect Clayton Thorson. Northwestern was unable to do that against good defenses last year. Play-action is also quite risky for Northwestern in terms of field position, as a sack or tackle for loss becomes slightly more damaging. However, with Clayton Thorson’s mobility, increased maturity and some better offensive line play, Northwestern could start to add more play-action passes to its repertoire.

A healthy offensive line

Last season, Northwestern’s offensive line was ineffective due to injuries at several key positions and inconsistent play. If Northwestern’s offensive line can stay healthy in 2016, it would be a huge factor in improving the balance of the offense. A healthy offensive line would improve Northwestern’s rushing attack and greatly reduce the amount of third-and-long situations that the offense faced last year. An improvement from 116th in adjusted sack rate on standard downs would also be quite helpful.

Clayton Thorson has to have more time to throw in 2016. There’s no way the coaching staff will allow Thorson to open up the offense if he risks turnovers and sacks due to his offensive line. Last season, the coaching staff could only trust the defense to remain consistent. If the offensive line can start to be more consistent, Northwestern’s offense will start to draw closer to average.

Will a possession receiver please stand up?

Northwestern had a conspicuous lack of a possession receiver last season, a player who could accrue many catches and act as a safety blanket for Clayton Thorson. You could argue that Dan Vitale acted as that player, but he disappeared from the offense during some games and did not have the impact many fans expected he would have. But now even Dan Vitale is gone, leaving Northwestern with no possession receiver whatsoever.

While developing a receiver who can go down the field is also critical, the foundation of creating a more balanced offense would be finding a receiver who can be trusted to convert key third downs, catch short passes and make Clayton Thorson’s life much easier. Right now, Northwestern has no idea who that guy will be. Perhaps Solomon Vault could play that role, but his speed and explosiveness might shift him to more of a deeper threat. You would assume that Austin Carr and Garrett Dickerson are currently in line to assume the role of possession receiver in Northwestern’s offense, but the uncertainty at superback and wide receiver make projecting roles nearly impossible.

Clayton Thorson must be better

Ultimately, the balance of the offense comes down to whether Clayton Thorson can improve from last season. There is really nowhere to go but up for Thorson, as he was statistically one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season. Everything has to improve. He has to average more yards per play. He has to simultaneously become more accurate. He has to use his legs more and throw on the run, but he also has to become a more effective passer in the pocket. All of the issues raised above will mean nothing if Thorson is bad. As is often the case in football, it all comes down to the quarterback. In order for Northwestern to balance its offense, Clayton Thorson will have to earn the trust of the team through his play.