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Five big questions, No. 2: Can Clayton Thorson improve?

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The redshirt sophomore was pretty good this season, but that might not be good enough next year.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is underway for Northwestern football, and though there’s well over half a year until the 2017 season opener against Nevada, it’s never too early to take a look at what next year’s team will look like. This series of questions will continue with one of the bigger offensive storylines heading into next season: how quarterback Clayton Thorson will fare with a mostly new receiving core.

Contrary to what a lot of disgruntled Northwestern fans might tell you, Clayton Thorson was not the reason for the Wildcats’ 1-3 start to the 2016 season. He wasn’t the reason they beat Pittsburgh in December’s Pinstripe Bowl and he wasn’t the reason Northwestern won 10 games in 2015.

At least for as long as Justin Jackson is in Evanston, passing will always be the second option for Mick McCall. When Northwestern struggled this past season — as it often did early in the year — it was usually not Thorson’s fault. Thus, there should be plenty of optimism surrounding the rising redshirt junior heading into the offseason.

Thorson, in throwing for over 3,000 yards with a completion percentage of nearly 60 percent, improved significantly in his second season. He threw for 15 more touchdowns as a sophomore while keeping his interceptions consistent at nine — with almost 200 more passing attempts.

He did become more of a pocket passer, though, and didn’t rip off as many big gains on the ground as he did in 2015. That was mostly a function of Northwestern’s increased ability to beat defenses down the field, a huge breakout year from the wide receiver position and Thorson’s ability to make much smarter reads of the opposing defensive scheme.

Take the two interceptions Thorson threw against Duke as a freshman. At the 0:11 and 1:19 marks of the below video, he forces passes into double- and triple-coverage almost recklessly, leading to turnovers.

Neither pick was a factor of defensive line pressure, a deflection or a miscommunicated route; they both were simply forced passes by a freshman trying to make a play.

Thorson also threw two interceptions in Northwestern’s 2016 win over the Blue Devils, but they weren’t due to poor decision-making. The first, above, was a slight overthrow and the second appeared to be a mis-run route.

The development is clear, and the vast improvement in Thorson’s control of the offense played an enormous role in the Wildcats jumping from 112th in Passing S&P+ in 2015 to 73rd in Passing S&P+ in 2016 (per Football Outsiders).

It’s highly unlikely Thorson regresses next year, but a potential source of decline is Northwestern’s soon-to-be-revamped wide receiving core. Two of the team’s top three pass-catchers — Austin Carr and Andrew Scanlan — will have graduated by the time the Wildcats take to Ryan Field on September 2nd against Nevada.

But Garrett Dickerson, Flynn Nagel and others will return, and like Carr did this past season, someone is going to have to step up. Fortunately for Northwestern, both Dickerson and Nagel were important players in the passing game and there’s no reason to not expect legitimate jumps in production from them.

What we do know for sure is that Thorson is a much better player now than he was just a year ago. The Northwestern passing offense can actually stretch defenses both north to south and east to west, which has made the work of the ground game easier.

So, finally, the question about how Thorson will fare in 2017 isn’t as much about him as it is the guys who will be catching passes from him. He’s a top-half Big Ten quarterback and should improve in year three. In a conference with a dearth of reliable signal-callers, that’s a definite luxury for Northwestern.