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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Quarterbacks

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How’s the knee, Clayton?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

For the second part of our 2018 Summer Guide, we move onto position previews. For each position, we’ll outline personnel, key players, and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

First up are the quarterbacks, where we will revisit our most important player and the most pressing question of the offseason— will Clayton Thorson be under center in West Lafayette on Aug. 30?

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): Clayton Thorson, Sr. (39)

Key losses: Matt Alviti (169 career passing yards, 144 career rushing yards)

Other returners: TJ Green (Jr.), Aidan Smith (So.), Andrew Marty (R-Fr.)

Newcomers: Hunter Johnson (So., eligible in 2019), Jason Whittaker (Fr.)

Northwestern knows what it is getting at quarterback. Kind of. Thorson’s production leveled off between his sophomore and junior seasons. The Wildcats can expect Thorson to look like a fringe all-Big Ten performer most of the time, with outstanding performances (Michigan State) interspersed with poor ones (Duke). The problem, obviously, is Thorson’s health. With the graduation of Matt Alviti, Northwestern lacks experienced depth should Thorson miss time due to the ACL injury he suffered in the Music City Bowl. If Green, Smith, or Marty are forced into extended duty, it could be a long season while Hunter Johnson awaits eligibility in 2019.

Key Player:

Clayton Thorson

I’m a little more bearish on Thorson’s chances to get his game to the next level given his statistical plateau (or regression) in 2017 and some of the structural limitations of the Northwestern offense.

Still, in a league where solid quarterback play is far from a given, Thorson has invaluable experience, can make all the throws, and uses his mobility to his advantage. Thorson earned Third Team All-Big Ten honors for his 2017 season, where he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards and fifth in completion percentage. His quarterback rating of 121.3 (10th in the conference) was a result of a shoddy 15:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

As I mentioned this weekend, I don’t see Thorson suddenly becoming the best quarterback in the conference, not without serious improvements in pass protection (among B1G QBs, only Max Bortenschlager was sacked more often) and somewhat of a breakout from a pass-catcher or two.

He doesn’t need to be the best quarterback in the league, however. Thorson has 39 starts under his belt, while at least half the conference is breaking in new signal-callers. If Thorson can replicate 2016 and 2017, Northwestern will be fine. That’s a big if.

Big Question:

Can Clayton Thorson play against Purdue? Will he be at 100 percent?

Seriously. It feels like this is the only question of importance this offseason, and its the question that will likely define the range of possibilities for Northwestern’s season. If Thorson is ready to go week one, bowl eligibility for a fourth straight year seems like a strong possibility. If the senior misses the first game or two, Northwestern could find itself in a 1-4 hole.

Teddy Greenstein at the Tribune filed a positive dispatch about Thorson’s progress on Monday. He said running and cutting feel good, and brought up the point that his injury isn’t as consequential for a quarterback as it might be for a receiver. I don’t have any inside information, but if I had to wager, I would bet on Thorson being ready to go for week one. I’d also guess Mick McCall will try to keep Thorson in the pocket early in the season, making the short and intermediate throws he’s so good at.

Depth Chart:

QB Depth

1st String 2nd String
1st String 2nd String
Clayton Thorson Green/Smith/Marty

Let’s hope we don’t have to worry about the depth behind Thorson.