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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 1: Clayton Thorson

For a fourth straight year, Thorson tops the list.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2018. 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.

Every staffer we polled ranked Thorson at the top of their list. There’s not much to argue about in terms of actual rankings. Instead, we’ll debate what we can expect from Thorson— assuming he’s under center against Purdue. How can he improve? What does a successful season from the fourth-year signal-caller look like?

Davis Rich (Rank: 1)

I ranked Clayton Thorson first, just like everyone else did, for a couple reasons. The self-evident reason is that quarterback is the single most important position on the field. Offenses don’t move without solid quarterback play, and signal-callers must be quick-thinking, authoritative, and decisive in a way other positions don’t need to be. If we had know TJ Green or Aidan Smith was the quarterback at this point (which they aren’t, we wouldn’t bury that lede), they would have ranked No. 1 here as well.

Thorson is still even more important because of his experience. He’s not a world-beater, but three-year starters don’t grow on trees, and Thorson has taken a ton of snaps, thrown a ton of passes, and played in a lot of huge games. If he’s not able to go on August 30, the Wildcat signal-caller will be someone who hasn’t done any of those things. And his first start will be a Big Ten road game. Gulp.

The Wildcat offense wasn’t particularly overwhelming last year. I’m going to quote Bill Connelly in his Northwestern preview that dropped Thursday:

When Northwestern was rolling last year, the offense was still only so good. The Wildcats avoided negative plays (on the ground, anyway), created third-and-manageables, moved the chains a couple of times to flip the field, and punted.

There were minimal big plays (they were 120th in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of your successful plays), and there was only temporary efficiency. It worked because the defense was so good.

This dynamic probably won’t change in 2018. For starters, the defense might be awesome again, and with a seasoned offensive line (seven players, including four seniors, have combined for 103 starts), the run blocking should be rather glitch-free again.

So here’s my take. Thorson was good, not great last year. Without spring ball and extensive time to train, he’s probably not going to get that much better. If Northwestern’s offense is going to go to the next level, the blockers and playmakers need to step up.

Is that too hot?

Talia Hendel (Rank: 1)

I don’t completely disagree with Davis’s take, but I will say this. I don’t think that Thorson’s perch at the top of our lists is simply due to fairly solid stats and the normality of his role at the quarterback position. I would argue that it is not simply the amount of time he’s spent on the field that has earned him our top spot, but rather the confidence and leadership he will undoubtedly continue to exhibit.

There’s a reason that Thorson almost never comes out. Davis is right, he hasn’t been the perfect image of consistency nor has he made every heroic play in crunch time. However, the inherent trust that this offense — and particularly Coach Fitz — have in him speaks volumes, especially due to the fact that he has made mistakes.

Sure, the offensive line got off to a discombobulated start and the receivers took some time to fill Austin Carr’s role, but I don’t think the Wildcats’ offense is solely dependent on improvement in those areas. Of course, it’ll help, but both of those position groups showed vast improved in the latter part of the season and there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue. But instead of suggesting that is a reason to bet against Thorson and argue that the wideouts and offensive line will make or break this offense, I’d say in many ways, Thorson was the underrated glue that kept the offense together. If he was able to lead the team to 10 wins with uncertainty in various areas of the offense throughout much of the early part of last season, I see no reason why he shouldn’t raise his game with a more settled and experienced squad surrounding him this season.


Thorson made a huge leap following his freshman season, when the team won ten games despite poor production from its signal-caller. But between his sophomore and junior season, Thorson’s passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating dropped, while his interceptions increased. Thorson was outstanding in Northwestern’s signature 2017 win, a triple-overtime thriller against Michigan State. Yet he was terrible against Duke and Penn State, combined for four interceptions against two scoring drives in those games.

It’s incredibly important for Thorson to be under center for Northwestern in 2018 because of his experience. However, I’m not expecting him to take another leap this fall and become an all-Big Ten quarterback. I’m expecting his production to be somewhere in the range of what he produced during his sophomore and junior seasons. If Northwestern’s offense is to improve drastically, it needs to get more explosive— through a deep-ball threat or a home-run hitting running back. Thorson doesn’t figure too heavily into that. Some more pass protection (Northwestern was ninth in the Big Ten with 2.4 sacks allowed per game last year) wouldn’t hurt either.


Although it is true that Thorson had a couple of his poorest performances of his career last season, he didn’t only lead his team to one overtime win, but three. His ability to come through in each of those performances was the difference between a 7-6 season and a 10-3 season. Sure, he struggled at times. But pulling out those wins not only meant the difference between playing for a bowl game title and getting left out of the running, but also provided intangible positives. It showed his teammates that he could and would stay calm and come through when the pressure was on.

I agree that he may not rise to all-Big Ten levels, but I think his production may be better with a more experience offensive line and group of wideouts. It’s absolutely true that an improvement in pass protection wouldn’t hurt— in fact I think it could make a huge difference. Having just a few extra seconds to settle and not have to be as concerned about scrambling out of the pocket could work wonders for completion stats and allow for significantly more deep throws to speed up the offensive drive. Of course, I’d love to see a decrease in interceptions and increase in passing efficiency, but I stand by the fact that I expect both those changes to happen and have full faith in Thorson’s ability to lead this team to another 10-win season.