To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
Forget the normal introduction. Usually, two of our writers debate the merits of a player’s ranking. But...Clayton Thorson was the unanimous choice for “most important player.” Instead, EICs Tristan Jung and Will Ragatz present the cases for why Thorson will or won’t take another step forward in his junior season. Let’s get to it.
Tristan Jung (Thorson ranking: 1): Let’s look at a list of the starting Big Ten West quarterbacks for 2017.
Wisconsin: Alex Hornibrook (1,262 passing yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs, 7.0 yards/attempt)
Nebraska: Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane.
Illinois: Jeff George Jr.? I have no idea.
Minnesota: Conor Rhoda? Tanner Morgan? (someone not named Mitch Leidner)
Iowa: Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers...these are real names.
Purdue: The immortal David Blough (3,352 passing yards, 25 TDs, 21 INTs, 6.5 yards/attempt)
Needless to say, it’s a down year for quarterbacking in the Big Ten. That leaves Clayton Thorson and Northwestern with a huge opportunity. By last year’s performance, he is the most accomplished of anyone in this group. He was careful with the ball, only throwing 9 interceptions compared to 22 touchdowns. Thorson might be the third-best quarterback in the Big Ten, behind Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett.
Thorson will be critical to this season, no matter what happens. In terms of head-to-head position battles, quarterback might be Northwestern’s biggest advantage over its opponents (or at least the 11 that aren’t Penn State) this season. As for the team itself, we all know how much a good quarterback means to a football team.
But we knew all that coming into the season. The more important question surrounding Thorson is whether he will produce...
Will Ragatz: (Thorson ranking: 1): Stop that. He’s going to be great.
Tristan Jung: I’d be hesitant to start proclaiming Thorson to be “the truth.” The offensive line has been mediocre or worse for most of this decade, and it doesn’t look like Northwestern has introduced any new wrinkles on that front. While Thorson has shown the ability to dance around his offensive line issues, I find it hard to believe he could do a better job than he did last season, especially without Austin Carr.
While there’s a decent chance that Thorson becomes even better and more accurate, I think it’s more likely that he has around the same season as last year. The offensive weapons are decent but mostly unproven (Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson, Garrett Dickerson, etc.), but the ceiling of this offense really rests on how well Thorson can be protected. If we get a repeat of the 2015 — or first half of 2016 — offensive line, it won’t matter how much more accurate and how much more arm strength Thorson has put together over the summer.
If the defense holds up and Northwestern’s offensive continues to improve, there’s no reason why this team can’t go 8-4 or 9-3 even with Thorson staying exactly the same or regressing slightly. However, I think we should throw some water on the fire. Any major step forward from Thorson requires a lot to go his way. His offensive line has to get better to establish Justin Jackson on the ground and set up the passing attack. He needs to have a viable second wide receiver in the passing game. He also needs to become more accurate and better at throwing downfield despite losing his best wide receiver. And, of course, he needs a good strategy that will fit his strong suits from offensive coordinator Mick McCall. That’s a lot of “ifs.”
But in order to go 10-2 or even 11-1 and dream of New Year’s Six Bowl games, Thorson needs all of those things to break right for him. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but it’s still not the likeliest scenario.
Will Ragatz: Consider me a hopeful optimist.
Sure, a lot of things have to break the right way for Thorson to take another step forward. But, really, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the early signs on many of those fronts are promising.
Let’s start with the most important one, as you mention: the offensive line. You’re absolutely right that the unit has been average at best for the majority of the past two seasons. However, there are a couple reasons why I think this could be the year that we finally see some of the consistency fans have been starved for. First of all, the group returns four of five starters from a line that showed some serious signs of progress towards the end of 2016. Tommy Doles, J.B. Butler, Blake Hance and Brad North are all experienced players, now it’s just a matter of putting it together for a full season.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s more depth that usual behind those four. Redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel impressed this spring and could provide excellent size at right tackle. Grad transfer Trey Klock has Power 5 starting experience and will find playing time, whether it be on the interior of the line or at tackle. There are some intriguing younger players waiting in the wings too. Given another full offseason together, there’s no reason why this offensive line can’t be, at the very least, solid enough to allow Thorson to thrive.
The second question mark I’m optimistic about is Thorson’s weapons in the passing game. Sure, there’s no Austin Carr, but it’s not like Carr was a proven four-year contributor. There’s been a lot of speculation about a breakout season from Flynn Nagel, and I’m fully on board that hype train, for better or worse. Nagel is a similar possession receiver with great route-running skills and sure hands. And he’s not alone. Thorson also has a senior superback in Garrett Dickerson and several potentially strong secondary options at wideout in Macan Wilson, Jalen Brown, and Bennett Skowronek. Nagel’s not going to match Carr’s insane 2016 numbers, but he doesn’t have to for Thorson and the passing game to have a strong year. The junior can spread the ball around a little bit more and still see another jump, albeit probably a slight one, in his statistics and overall performance.
What makes Thorson the most important player on the Wildcats, ironically, isn’t entirely about his own ability. That has a lot to do with it, of course; Thorson can improve in a number of areas, including his deep ball and awareness in the pocket. But this ranking also takes into account all of the pieces around him. Like Tristan said, if they flourish and Thorson continues to improve, a Big Ten West title is well within reach. Consider me among those who think it’s possible.