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His status still uncertain, Clayton Thorson enters a legacy-defining season

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Eight months removed from tearing his ACL, Northwestern’s steadiest player is poised to make a run at the West.

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

Clayton Thorson takes great pride in being steady. As the man who has started Northwestern’s last 39 games at quarterback, he’s been a dependable constant at the sport’s most important position.

He carries himself like a quarterback’s quarterback, crediting his linemen and receivers after wins, taking full blame after losses. Thorson talks about taking things one day at a time, one rep at a time, and usually keeps his comments to football. He’s calm and poised, and he’s been that way since he won 10 games as a redshirt freshman starter.

Thorson is already the winningest quarterback in Northwestern history, and he’s tied for first in program history in passing touchdowns. He’s won in hostile environments, against ranked teams and in bowl games. He’s 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, and has drawn first-round projections from reputable evaluators. His head coach believes he’ll be a first round pick.

But, for all he and Northwestern have accomplished together, there’s unfinished business, and Thorson knows it.

“We got a place we can go,” Thorson says, “and I gotta bring guys with us.”

***

Clutching his knee on the turf at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., the most difficult offseason of Clayton Thorson’s life was about to begin.

Immediately, he knew something was wrong. When he didn’t get up, everyone else did too.

“Right after it happened, I never knew if I’d play again,” Thorson said.

After receiving medical help, Justin Jackson, Thorson’s backfield partner in every game he ever played at NU, came over. Touching heads, Jackson gave Thorson a simple message in the near-silent stadium.

“We’re gonna get this one for you, I got you, I love you.”

Northwestern did win the game, but at a steep price. With Thorson joining the celebration in street clothes and crutches, an odd ambivalence swirled through the cold air.

When Thorson recounts that moment with Jackson, he can’t help but express disappointment — not because he would need to spend the next eight months undergoing grueling, draining rehab for a torn ACL, but that he couldn’t finish the game with Jackson, a player who he had been through everything with, he says.

Thorson got back to Evanston and had an MRI, confirming his fears that his offseason would be upended and his future made uncertain by a major ligament tear.

“Everything happens for a reason, I believe that,” Thorson said. “It was kind of ‘Alright, we’re movin’ forward, we’re going with this thing and you’re going to get better.’”

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

***

When you’re the starting quarterback at a power conference school, a lot of people count on you. There are heightened play-calling duties, leadership expectations, increased media responsibilities, pressure ... the list goes on.

Since the day he became the face of Northwestern football as a freshman, Thorson has been mature. But early on, he often struggled on the field, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and barely completing half his passes in his debut season. He also wasn’t where he needed to be as a leader.

“He needed to be more present to build more trust and to build more camaraderie,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said before the 2016 season. “He wasn’t doing anything wrong; he just wasn’t doing anything. He’s a homebody. To see that shows great self-awareness and great growth.”

Said Fitzgerald in 2015: “Punt’s a pretty good play for our offense right now.”

When Thorson’s sophomore season rolled around, it was apparent that he put in the work to improve. With a full offseason as the starter under his belt, he returned as a better passer and a better leader. Thorson’s evolution as a thrower showed up in his final stat lines, but his evolution as a leader manifested more between plays, particularly in the adrenaline-filled moments after zipping a dart for a first down or finding an open receiver downfield.

“One of the cool things he does,” says former receiver Macan Wilson, “you make a big play … you kinda automatically look back and see what the next play is gonna be, but with Clayton there’s always that one moment when you turn to look at him, and he looks at you and kinda gives you a strong, firm point at you. It gets you going a little bit.”

Thorson also improved his ability to manage his emotions and demeanor during games, especially early in his sophomore season. He recalls moments like responding to an early pick-six and 14-point deficit to hang 54 on Michigan State in East Lansing, or delivering score after score to knock off Iowa during his sophomore season.

“I think that’s really been something I’ve learned and continued to learn,” Thorson said. “Just the mental side, and I’m not talking about how to read a coverage, how to diagnose a defense what they’re doing, or how to throw a skinny post 25-yards deep, I’d say more just how to respond during a game.

“If you throw a pick-six, how do you come back and do well? How do you respond if your team’s down 14-0? How do you respond to when you throw a touchdown and you’re up 28-0, how do you keep going?

“As a quarterback,” he continued, “you’ve got to be able to have guys rally around you ... being someone guys can always turn to when things get tough.”

NCAA Football: Nevada at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

***

For months, Aug. 30 has lingered in the back of Thorson’s mind. During an intense rehab, he says he had to commit to being OK with pain. He had to approach every day harder than the last, and he couldn’t slip up. He had a game in eight months. His teammates were counting on him, and he didn’t want to let them down.

Even in spring ball, when Thorson wasn’t cleared for any real football, it became clear Thorson was progressing quickly, and other players took note. Thorson’s teammates — the same people pushing him forward — used Thorson’s recovery as their own motivation.

“From the minute he walked out of that locker room in Nashville to walking in [to Big Ten Media Days] today, I believe he’s inspired our team amazingly,” Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Days. “He handled it, at least outwardly and mentally, incredibly well, he came back from the surgery and just attacked his rehab relentlessly.”

Thorson credits his support system for helping get him through the difficult parts of his rehab. He mentions his parents, who have been with him every step of the way.

He mentions his wife Audrey, who he married this summer and is living with for the first time in a while. He said she understands him better than anyone, and knows what to say to encourage him.

He mentions Nate Hall, who also rehabbed a torn ACL this offseason. “It really helps us both a ton really,” Thorson says, “because I’ll turn to him and be like ‘hey, this is sore, how are you feelin?’ He’s like ‘Dude I got the same thing.’ And so we have really been able to bounce things off each other, and ideas, and just be there for each other.”

He talks about his Christian faith, which he says some people may not know about him. He said It allows him to play free and keeps him grounded.

Everything, together, was pushing Thorson toward Aug. 30. The question now remains, was it enough? Will he play?

***

Thorson has helped take Northwestern to new heights as a program. Two of NU’s five 10-win seasons have come in the past three years under Thorson. He played a major role in making winning seasons and bowl games the norm for a school with as futile a history as any. But now, thanks to that success, bowl wins and winning seasons do not suffice. The bar has been raised.

Pat Fitzgerald has said it himself time and time again: anything short of a Big Ten West title is a disappointment. Thorson knows this. And, for as solid as he’s been, he’ll need to elevate his game to get there. He’ll need to make a leap to the point where the numbers and production match the arm talent. The kind of leap that will make an NFL franchise bet its future on him. The kind of leap that pushes you past Wisconsin, and everybody else in the West.

Because, the truth is, he hasn’t done that just yet. Northwestern has never had an offense ranked higher than No. 63 in S&P+ under Thorson. And, despite winning 10 games twice, Northwestern hasn’t made a real run at the West with Thorson. In 2015, losing by a combined 68 points to Michigan and Iowa did the Wildcats in. Last season, Wisconsin all but ended Northwestern’s hopes in September.

Clayton Thorson has it all there for the taking. The high-level opponents, the experienced receivers and perhaps the competent offensive line he’s lacked for most of his college career.

Ask Thorson about his goals for the season, and he’ll give a very Thorson-esque answer.

“Consistently preparing for victory,” he said. “And we have to consistently do that everyday and leave no stone unturned.”

The last and most difficult stone, it seems, is getting to Indianapolis.