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 facing Pat Fitzgerald's team heading into camp.
We continue the countdown with No. 2: Can Clayton Thorson be better under pressure?
Pat Fitzgerald has talked about it all offseason. Northwestern has to develop offensive balance if it wants to be able to compete for the Big Ten title. Last year, that balance was nonexistent. The Wildcats could not move the ball effectively through the air, allowing opponents to stack the box to try to stop the run. If Northwestern chose to run the ball, it played right into the defenses’ hands. And when the Wildcats decided to throw the ball, they had major problems against any sort of pass rush.
While Clayton Thorson certainly has the physical tools—a big arm and above-average mobility— to play at a high level, he was unable to show that at times last year, due to poor offensive line play and his lack of experience against Big Ten blitzes. When given time to work with, however, Thorson did show signs of the abilities that made him such a coup for Fitzgerald when he got the former four-star to ink with the Wildcats.
So what can Thorson improve on while under pressure in 2016, and what encouraging signs were there in 2015? Let’s take a look at the film.
The main issue last year when it came to throwing against pressure was simply recognizing where it was coming from and making adjustments based on pre-snap readings. The jump between facing a high school blitz and a college blitz is enormous not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint. At the college level, blitzes are hidden much more discretely. Formations that look to contain blitzes often don’t, and formations that look like they feature just the linemen rushing often feature stunts or cornerback blitzes.
Here’s an example against Michigan.
There’s an overload blitz coming from Thorson’s right. Right tackle Eric Olson notices that and points to his responsibility, linebacker Desmond Morgan (No. 3). That leaves Delano Hill (No. 44) with a free run to the quarterback. He comes in untouched, and Thorson has to unload the ball in a hurry. There are simply too many pass rushers for the offensive line to hold up.
Here’s another example from Duke.
The Blue Devils go with zero down lineman, admittedly a pretty strange look. But they effectively get pressure while bringing just four men, with a corner blitz off the edge completely catching Thorson by surprise. He has to get rid of the ball earlier than he would have liked, and even if Miles Shuler had caught the ball, he wouldn’t have converted for a first down.
And here, a third example against Iowa.
In this case, Thorson has no clue Josey Jewell is coming on a blitz until he gets absolutely walloped by the Iowa linebacker. No lineman blocks Jewell, but Thorson makes no move to step up in the pocket whatsoever. If there’s going to be a free runner at the quarterback, the quarterback had better know that he’s coming and have a plan to evade him. Thorson had neither.
But there’s one significant reason to expect Thorson to be better in this area in 2016: experienced film study. It’s one thing to study film against players at a level you’ve never played at before. As Thorson put it himself, it’s “a lot different” to study film after a year of experience against competition.
“Just seeing the experience and seeing what it’s like to be in a game and knowing the quickness it’s gotta be, the quick decisions, what it’s like in a game just mentally makes it a lot better to study film,” Thorson told Inside NU. “It helps out a lot.”
Help from the receivers
Last year, the chemistry between Thorson and his receivers was lacking, to put it lightly. Part of that was due to a quarterback battle that left him getting only one-third of the offseason reps and none of the leadership that comes with being the definitive starter. But that’s changed this year.
“Last year coming in this time we had three guys, and guys didn’t really know who to look to, but now obviously I’m the quarterback; I’m the guy,” he said. “That definitely helps with offseason workouts. I’m kind of leading everything, and guys know who to look to.”
This offseason, Thorson said, he’s led three or four extra throwing sessions with wide receivers weekly and two or three extra film sessions weekly as well. He explained that performing against the blitz is an 11-man responsibility, but that it starts and ends with him. He has to be cognizant of blitzers and let his linemen and running backs know where he’s seeing pressure from, but he also needs his wide receivers on the same page.
Too often last year, that final part did not perform.
Here’s a perfect example against Nebraska:
There are nine (!!!) Cornhuskers within five yards of the line of scrimmage on this play by the time the ball is snapped. That makes sense; a short-yardage situation often meant running the ball last year. In this case, though, Mick McCall wants to go to the air. With three linebackers sneaking down toward the line of scrimmage, two players pop open quickly.
Solomon Vault (No. 4), running a drag route, and Jelani Roberts (No. 81, at the top of the shot) are both wide open, but neither is looking for the ball. Vault doesn’t turn for the ball until Thorson is being bear-hugged by a Nebraska lineman.
This play initially looks to be Thorson’s fault. It looks like he didn’t recognize the blitz at all and took a sack despite an open wide receiver right in front of him. Re-watch the clip, though, and you’ll see that Thorson did indeed see Vault, but Vault was not looking for the ball. If Vault’s head is on a swivel a split second earlier, that’s an easy completion and a lot of space for one of Northwestern’s most dynamic players. But it’s not, and therefore the play results in a sack.
Drops were another issue from Thorson’s wide receivers.
In this example, the line holds up well, Vault stonewalls his assignment, and Thorson makes one heck of a throw. But it goes right through Flynn Nagel as if he didn’t exist. And yes, Nagel takes a big hit at the end. But this play must be made. Just as we saw throughout the year, Thorson’s numbers didn’t necessarily reflect his play, due to a very high drop rate from his pass-catchers.
Throwing off the back foot
Thorson’s pocket presence against the blitz was an issue, but it’s one that can be corrected. He needs to ensure to drive off his back foot and fully step into every throw, even in the face of blitzers. It’s easier said than done, but the results when he sits back are not pretty.
It results in floating, inaccurate passes:
Or in woefully under-thrown passes, with the second of these examples having disastrous consequences.
Now watch the difference when he really steps into his throws. He drives the ball downfield (arm strength has never been an issue) with good accuracy, even against two of the best defenses in the nation, both on third down against the blitz.
(Side note: This is former walk-on Austin Carr beating Jabrill Peppers.)
(Side note: Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel (No. 47) might have had the most perfectly-timed jump in the history of college football in the example above.)
Offensive line breakdowns
This is not good football by anyone in a white jersey.
I understand that the above-mentioned Biegel is very good, but he probably does not need to be triple-teamed. This is a blatant miscommunication and a costly one in opponent territory, too.
Thorson’s protection needs to be better in 2016, especially because opponents will load the box until the Wildcats’ signal caller proves he can beat them.
Here’s a prime example of this. One-man wrecking ball Biegel slips by Blake Hance essentially untouched, and Solomon Vault does not block anyone.
Here’s another example where the Northwestern lineman, in this case Connor Mahoney, is way too slow pulling around the formation. Malik Foreman is on Thorson in a flash.
I’m sure you’ve seen enough of Clayton Thorson getting pummeled to know that he—as well as his teammates—need to be much better against the blitz in 2016. Perhaps this sheds some light as to the reasoning behind McCall’s conservative playbook. He can’t just leave his quarterback out to dry.
But Thorson showed some good signs against pressure, too. The throw to Nagel against Duke is one of his best all year, but in the stat sheet, it just goes down as an incompletion. His completion to Austin Carr—on 3rd and 15 in his own territory at The Big House, no less—shows what he can when he can climb in the pocket and get his feet set. Yes, he has to do this on a consistent basis, but his offensive line needs to give him the opportunity to do so as well. Overall, you can see some encouraging signs from Thorson, but not on a consistent enough basis. The same goes for the 10 teammates on the field around him. Still, much like the 2016 season as a whole, getting better against the blitz starts and ends with Thorson. Based on the extra practice he’s led with his offensive teammates, we should expect major improvement in this area.