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Clayton Thorson is poised to become even better in 2017

The athletic signal-caller is experienced and confident heading into his third season as the starter.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago, Pat Fitzgerald openly renewed his confidence in a redshirt sophomore quarterback. That quarterback, Clayton Thorson, was coming off a tough individual season laden with growing pains, in which he barely completed 50 percent of his passes. But Fitz never wavered.

“Clayton’s the guy,” Fitzgerald asserted at 2016 Big Ten Media Days. “Our chemistry, our trust, our timing, our rhythm is improved."

Then the young signal caller went out and made the freshman-to-sophomore year jump that Fitzgerald expected and needed. The game clearly slowed down for Thorson; he showed more poise and trust in himself and his teammates last season.

“I feel great,” Thorson said on Tuesday. “I feel really confident. I think the experience has helped so much, every single year just growing and getting more knowledge and knowing what to do in the offseason is huge.”

In a conference that lacks experienced quarterbacks, especially within the West division, Thorson is among the Big Ten’s best. Only five programs return a signal caller with a full season of starts under their belt. Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota will all feature quarterbacks making their first conference start. Ohio State’s JT Barrett is the lone Big Ten quarterback with more career starts than Thorson’s 26.

The term “elite” is thrown around loosely when it comes to quarterbacks, but only four in the Big Ten threw for over 3,000 yards last season and only four had more than 20 touchdowns. Thorson was second in the conference in completions while throwing single digit interceptions. He threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns despite being sacked 38 times, the third most in the country. He is effectively an elite quarterback within one of the best conferences in the nation, prompting Rivals to rank him No. 1.

At 2016 Media Days we wrote about how Thorson had to make the ever-important jump. He’s done that. Now, the next step for the Wheaton, Illinois, native is to become the best quarterback in the Big Ten. An unexpected call from Archie Manning extending an invitation to be a counselor at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy was a pleasant offseason surprise.

“It was an unbelievable experience talking with Peyton, Eli, Archie, and the other quarterbacks there and just learning from those guys, it was great,” Thorson said. “Just seeing all of these quarterbacks who are known as top picks and to measure myself up with them was great. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Confidence is the word of the offseason for Thorson. An Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection in his second active season, he was placed on the Maxwell Award Watch List in early July. Thorson’s 22 touchdown passes last season were a program record, and he is closing in on more Northwestern history. The two-year starter ranks seventh in school history with 29 career passing touchdowns and is 10th with 4,704 career passing yards.

“17 wins over two years, his confidence is at an all-time high and that’s because of his performance and work ethic,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, he has put in the work and I think he’s next in line of our great quarterbacks that we’ve had in my 18 years.”

With a 6-foot-4, 226-pound frame that is seemingly built to play at the next level, Thorson’s performance is beginning to match his sky-high potential. We mentioned the possibility of the redshirt junior forgoing his fifth year in Evanston for the NFL Draft back in May, and Thorson opened some eyes when ESPN NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper dubbed him among the five best underclassmen quarterbacks a few weeks later. Putting up 256 yards on Ohio State’s heralded secondary — the most passing yards the Buckeyes yielded in the regular season — will inevitably put you on the NFL radar. Ohio State’s secondary featured three first rounders.

Thorson’s growth is no surprise to those who have played alongside him the past three seasons.

“You can tell by the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he hangs around the team, you can tell he’s confident in himself,” said backfield counterpart Justin Jackson. “He’s ready to lead our team even better than he did last year. He obviously had a breakout year last year and he’s really ready to take the next step, and you can see that just in his demeanor.”

It’s this demeanor that helped Thorson effectively grow as the season wore on. Northwestern sputtered to a 1-3 start behind Thorson’s 53-percent completion rate and 117.1 passer rating. The final four games of the season saw the Wildcats go 3-1, including the third bowl victory in program history. In that four game stretch, Thorson completed 64 percent of his passes to compile a 132.6 passer rating.

That progression throughout the season is encouraging, but the quarterback will be without the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Austin Carr. Thorson sees plenty of potential options for a receiver to emerge as his new go-to target, including junior Flynn Nagel and fifth-year senior Macan Wilson. He also mentioned Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, sophomore Ben Skowronek, and senior tight end Garrett Dickerson.

“We’ve got a few great inside receivers, a few great outside receivers, a lot of tight ends who we can get the ball and running backs,” Thorson said. “So there’s nothing I need to do different, I just need to go out and play and those guys the same thing. All I need to do is throw them the ball and all they need to do is catch it.”

Thorson certainly doesn’t lack trust in his wide receivers. Although it’s a young, unproven group, the conference’s leading receiver last year, Carr, barely had over 400 career yards entering his senior season. Thorson is capable of making his teammates better.

He’s also aware that with his play last season, the Pat Fitzgerald’s quarterback is far from an unknown commodity. In 2017, defenses will be focused on stopping Northwestern’s dynamic backfield duo. Tuesday, a reporter asked Thorson if it changes his preparation knowing Northwestern isn’t going to sneak up on anybody offensively.

Thorson didn’t hesitate, showcasing his elevated confidence and vast press conference experience.

“It comes down to execution,” Thorson said.

Spoken like a true veteran.