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Countdown to Kenosha Question 1: What can we expect from Clayton Thorson?

How much will Northwestern’s starting quarterback really improve?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

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 finish the countdown with No. 1: What exactly should we expect from Clayton Thorson?

Here are two interesting things about Clayton Thorson’s first year as Northwestern’s starting quarterback.

  1. The team won 10 games with him under center.
  2. He wasn’t that good.

As head coach Pat Fitzgerald always says, “it’s all about going 1-0 every week” and Northwestern was able to do that 10 out of 13 times with Thorson as the quarterback. However, it says a lot about his quality of play that as the quarterback of a then-7-2 team and he was still benched against Purdue. Through 13 games, Thorson threw for 1522 yards, 7 TDs, 9 INTs and a 50.8 completion percentage.

Despite all this, Thorson is 100 percent the starting quarterback heading into 2016, but with a tougher schedule and losses on defense, he’ll have to improve if Northwestern wants to be more than just competitive once again. So what exactly can we expect from Clayton Thorson in terms of improvement this season?

More Strength

This one is pretty much a given so we won’t spend too much time on it, but Thorson will be physically bigger and stronger this season. According to Fitzgerald, players have been setting new personal records in the weight room left and right, and the whole team has really been hitting the weights hard this off season.

Thorson should be bigger and hopefully have a little bit more zip behind his passes. The most important part here is that he should be more durable and even be able to break a tackle or two.

Better Reads and Command of the Playbook

We can sit and complain about the conservative play calling all we want, but until Thorson starts to execute the simple stuff better, Mick McCall isn’t going to open the play book. However, Thorson is now in his third year with the team, and has had the entire off season to work as the starting quarterback. The effects of this are two fold, first he should be making better reads both at the line and once the play starts, so we get less of this:

Second, he should have better control over the plays that the team is running and know who will be where when. That means less of this:

This of course affects read option plays as well if Northwestern chooses to run them. Basically this can all be summed up to the fact that Thorson should at least seem like he knows what he’s doing mentally at this point.

Better completion percentage

In 2015, there were eight sophomores with prior playing experience in the top 50 in passing yards (the cutoff was 2,679 yards), seven of the eight significantly improved their completion percentage between their freshman and sophomore years. The one who didn’t was Heisman contender Deshaun Watson who dropped from 67.9 percent to 67.8, so that is somewhat irrelevant.

This just naturally makes sense given what was mentioned above. Thorson will be more cerebral and stronger this year, making it easier for him to find and hit the open man. (Assuming the open man hauls in the pass). Thorson was wildly inaccurate last year, only completing 50.8 percent of his passes, and that’s the first thing that needs to improve in 2016. Even an improvement to a pedestrian 57 or 58 percent would be a big difference.

Better stats but nothing spectacular

Among the group of eight quarterbacks mentioned above, there are three that are fit to be compared to Clayton Thorson based on freshman playing experience. They are: Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Idaho’s Matt Linehan and Florida International’s Alex McGough. When you take freshman year statistics into account, Kaaya and Linehan were far better, so the best comparison to Thorson is FIU’s McGough.

Here are their freshman year stats side by side:

2015 Thorson: 150- 295, 50.8%, 1522 yards, 7 TDs, 9 INTs, 10-3 record

2014 McGough: 138-274, 50.4%, 1680 yards, 14 TDs, 10 INTs, 4-8 record

There’s really nothing pretty here for either of these quarterbacks, but both were freshman and were lucky enough to start the entire season. Now more importantly, here are McGough’s sophomore stats:

2015 McGough: 270-420, 64.3%, 2722, 21 TDs, 8 INTs, 5-7 record

That is some significant statistical improvement. Now obviously there is no guarantee that this is the type of stats we’ll see from Thorson this year—it will still be a run-first attack as long as Justin Jackson is around—but this seems like a good benchmark for a successful season. Throw the ball more, complete more passes and throw fewer interceptions: all that can really be asked of the quarterback.

The one fact that isn’t accounted for is Thorson’s speed and mobility, which add big play possibilities on the ground. However, we already know that Thorson is capable of doing that, and where the improvement will need to come is through the air.

More and better deep passes

Thorson didn’t have a ton of chances to throw the ball deep last year, but when he did, he threw some pretty ones.

Here’s a great deep ball to Austin Carr while under pressure:

Here’s another great throw to (a wide open) Dan Vitale:

Thorson can make these throws, and he’ll be given more chances to do so in 2016. There aren’t a ton of positives that can be taken away from Thorson’s freshman year, but his obvious arm strength one of them. With Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard—two of the faster players on the team—now wide receivers, look for more long passes in 2016.

Overall Improvement, but no huge jump

Here is where we ultimately stand with Clayton Thorson heading into his second season at the helm. He will improve because, statistically, sophomores almost always do, he’ll be stronger and smarter, and he will be better.

However, there isn’t a ton that can be gleaned from his freshman year that makes you super confident in his skill set. Only time will tell how much better 2016 Clayton Thorson is, but expect a smaller more realistic improvement. He’ll be a smarter player and he’ll be asked to do a little bit more, but a jump to stardom—especially considering the strengths and weaknesses of his supporting cast—looks unlikely at this point.