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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Quarterbacks

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Can Clayton Thorson take another leap forward?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2017 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

First up is quarterback. Clayton Thorson is the starter without question. He will look to build on a decent campaign in 2016 and take Northwestern to a Big Ten West title. He was also our most important player heading into 2017.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Clayton Thorson (Jr.) (26)

Key losses: Lloyd Yates is now a wide receiver UPDATE: Kubiuk is now a holder

Other returners: Matt Alviti (Sr.), TJ Green (So.), Aidan Smith (RS-Fr.)

Incoming freshmen: Andrew Marty

Clayton Thorson started a bit slowly, but posted a very good year at quarterback in 2016. Northwestern’s coaching staff took the leash off the offense after four games and Thorson responded strongly. He threw 17 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions in the final nine games of the season. He also chipped in 4 rushing touchdowns. While he was still a bit inconsistent, his four excellent games against Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State showed the potential that Thorson has. He is the undisputed starter, and Northwestern is completely screwed if he gets hurt. Matt Alviti, a senior and former four-star recruit, is a nice experienced backup to have, but has yet to show the ability to lead an offense. Maybe he’ll be involved in some more weird option packages, though. If anyone else takes a snap, disaster has struck.

Key Player

Clayton Thorson

Two years ago, we all waltzed into the spring wondering whether Matt Alviti, Zack Oliver or Clayton Thorson would be the starting quarterback. Now, the team and the fanbase is all-in on Thorson. Going 27-for-35 with 281 yards and 3 touchdowns against Michigan State in East Lansing and going toe-to-toe with J.T. Barrett will earn anyone leeway.

He’s the guy. He has the arm strength, he’s developing better accuracy, and his decision-making was excellent down the stretch. There should be no calls to bench Thorson unless he truly reverts to late-2015 form. Besides, there’s really no one behind him right now.

Big Question

How good can Clayton Thorson be?

Last year, Thorson’s cumulative Total QBR on ESPN was 62.3. That’s a decent score, but Thorson still ranked 54th in the nation amongst eligible quarterbacks. In order for Northwestern to really make a concerted effort at the Big Ten West, I think Thorson will need to be in the 70-80 range, with quarterbacks like Greg Ward Jr. (Houston) and Trace McSorley (Penn State). That’s a significant statistical jump for the incoming junior.

He will have to do this with far fewer resources than players like Ward, McSorley and Davis Webb boast. However, a truly transcendent quarterback can overcome these issues and build a great offense regardless. We saw flashes of that last season. Although Austin Carr was amazing, Thorson certainly made AC80 look quite good throughout the season. After the offensive line looked completely incapable of blocking for him through four games, Thorson adjusted. He made quicker throws, sacrificing some accuracy in the process, and rapidly improved his ability to read defenses.

I hesitate to fall into the cliché of the smart Northwestern quarterback, but Thorson has shown the ability to change how he sees the game depending on the situation and how much faith the coaches have in him. This year, I hope that he gets turned loose from Week 1 against Nevada. If he can become one of the top 25 quarterbacks in the country, Northwestern should have a say in who makes it to the Big Ten Championship Game.

Quarterback Depth Chart

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Clayton Thorson Matt Alviti TJ Green or Aidan Smith

No alarms and no surprises, please.