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2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season

2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Clayton Thorson was a high four-star recruit when he signed with Northwestern in the class of 2014 — the kind of talent that could lead the Wildcats to new heights.

But in his first year at the helm in 2015, Thorson was an unquestioned liability for large chunks of the season as NU ground out 10 wins in spite of its signal-caller. Now, the progression of the sophomore quarterback in his second year as a starter is probably the most important storyline to monitor for the Cats this season.

Stats don’t paint a kind picture of Thorson’s work on the aggregate last season. He averaged a pitiful 5.2 passing yards per attempt, one of the worst marks in the country among qualified quarterbacks, completed a shade over 50 percent of his passes and led one of the worst passing offenses in the country by most measures last season.

While he struggled through the air, Thorson was a passable threat on the ground in 2015, averaging a solid 6.9 yards per carry on a good volume of attempts and making some big plays with his feet. But his athleticism didn’t translate to mobility in the pocket, as Thorson was sacked on roughly seven percent of his dropbacks, putting NU behind schedule offensively with regularity.

Anecdotally, Thorson’s raw talent shined through in some of the big plays of last season, from a game-breaking 42-yard touchdown run against Stanford to open the season to a perfectly-weighted 37-yard wheel-route touchdown throw to the now-graduated Dan Vitale at Nebraska. But in between the big plays were too many indecisive moments leading to sacks or broken-up plays and too many decisive throws telegraphed into the waiting arms of a defender.

Thorson’s limitations severely hindered any attempts by the Cats to be aggressive offensively last year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall were forced to call a predictable slate of run plays game after game to work around their erratic young quarterback, making things easy for opposing defenses and putting immense pressure on NU’s defense to be near-perfect on most days.

The talent to create big plays is there for Thorson, though, and there’s nowhere to go but up this season relative to the struggles of 2015. If he can show improvement and refinement in his pocket awareness, decision-making and command of the offense, and if more stability on the offensive line and new faces in the receiving corps can give a little help, Thorson could emerge as a reasonably effective quarterback in his second season at the helm.

If it doesn’t come together for Thorson, junior quarterback Matt Alviti is likely the first option to step in as a replacement. Alviti only has seven pass attempts to his name in his collegiate career, but his pedigree as a four-star dual-threat quarterback recruit should give him the first crack at the backup role.

Should disaster strike, the Cats have a total of six quarterbacks on the roster. Sophomore Daniel Kubiuk, redshirt-freshmen TJ Green and Lloyd Yates and freshman Aidan Smith are all battling for the third-string job.

But for better or for worse, Clayton Thorson is NU’s starter heading into the 2016 season. And with plenty of other questions on both sides of the ball, the Cats will be hoping Thorson becomes an answer this year.

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches
(Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang)

Coming off a 10-win season marked by low scores and close games — and maybe some luck in Northwestern’s favor, depending on one’s perspective — expectations for the Wildcats are all over the board. And with some key pieces missing from last season’s defense and major room for improvement offensively, questions abound for NU in 2016. The Cats’ answers to these five, in particular, will go a long way toward determining how this season plays out.

1. Can Clayton Thorson be something at quarterback?

Quarterback is the most important position in football, and as such, this question is the most important one for NU heading into this season.

As a redshirt-freshman, Thorson was largely ineffective last season as the starting quarterback. He missed throws long and short, gave the ball away frequently and rarely could bail out the Cats’ offense when it got behind schedule. Although there was plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s struggles in 2015, from shaky pass protection and receivers to a running game that wasn’t explosive enough and questionable play-calling, Thorson deserved some scrutiny for his play as well.

The bright side, then, is that there’s plenty of room for improvement in Thorson’s game, and with some regression to be expected in other areas, a step up from the young quarterback could be the key to keeping NU competitive this year. Even if he doesn’t break out to the point of elevating the rest of the players on the offense, just average quarterback play from Thorson would give the Cats a new look offensively.

2. Where will big offensive plays come from?

Although Thorson’s play will likely be the most important storyline to watch this season, the reality is no matter how much its quarterback improves, NU doesn’t look like a team that will go on long drives without eventually making a mistake.

To make up for that, the Cats need to find ways to generate big plays at a higher clip than they did last season — just 22 running plays went for 20 or more yards and 12 passing plays went for 25 or more yards in 2015. The speedy junior Solomon Vault, transitioning from running back to receiver this offseason, could prove to be a playmaker after the catch, and a better rotation in the backfield could help keep junior running back Justin Jackson fresh enough to break some big runs. A more comfortable Thorson could look to air it out more often, and more successfully, than he did last season.

The Cats won’t become an efficient offensive machine in one offseason, but there are reasonable ways they can create a few more big plays than they did a season ago.

3. Who will pressure opposing quarterbacks?

Arguably the biggest single loss to graduation from last season is defensive end Dean Lowry, who only notched three sacks last season but was a constant presence in the backfield. His line-mate Deonte Gibson, who led the team with nine sacks last season, has graduated as well, leaving behind questions about where the pass rush will come from this season.

Rotational players on the edge last season like senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be counted on to perform in bigger roles in 2016, while interior players like junior Tyler Lancaster and sophomore Jordan Thompson could provide some pressure up the middle. NU’s pass rush wasn’t the most fearsome part of its defense last season, but the ability to create pressure without blitzes would be huge for a team looking to stay among the nation’s best on the defensive side.

4. Can the secondary keep it up with some new faces?

The Cats’ secondary was the most lauded unit on the team last season, and with good reason. The “Sky Team” put together a season for the ages, surrendering just five passing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per passing attempt.

Some major pieces in the secondary will be missing next season, as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Nick VanHoose have graduated, while an expected starter at cornerback, junior Keith Watkins II, has been ruled out for the year with a knee injury. Senior cornerback Matt Harris and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike are top-flight players, but the players around them could be a concern heading into the year.

5. Will the Cats offer any resistance on the big stage?

NU had a memorable 2015 and won a lot of games — but when it lost, it lost big in some of its biggest games of the season.

In a highly anticipated matchup after starting 5-0, the Cats were annihilated at Michigan, 38-0. The next week, they were run over by Iowa in their homecoming game in a 40-10 defeat. And in the Outback Bowl, NU was trampled by Tennessee, 45-6, to end the season on a sour note.

The Cats demonstrated an ability to edge out teams of comparable quality in close games last season, but were exposed in major ways by teams with more talent. With games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa this season, NU’s ability to keep those games competitive could go a long way to making the season feel successful even if the Cats can’t reach 2015’s heights.

Men’s basketball Big Ten game dates released

The final piece of the puzzle for Northwestern’s men’s basketball schedule is finally in place, as the Big Ten announced its conference schedule Thursday.

The Wildcats will open Big Ten play at Penn State, kicking off a stretch of four road games in five to start the conference season featuring perennial contenders Michigan State and some of the conference’s lesser lights in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Rutgers.

Other schedule highlights include a few consecutive-game stretches against quality opponents, such as back-to-back games against Indiana and Purdue and against Wisconsin and Maryland. A three-game stretch featuring the Hoosiers, Michigan and the Boilermakers closes out NU’s conference slate with a few chances to pick up good wins heading into the postseason.

Northwestern releases trailer for “The Foundation”

by Max Gelman 0 Comments

Northwestern’s football program has released a video preview for an upcoming show called “The Foundation.”

The show will give Wildcat fans a “behind-the-scenes” look at the team throughout the 2016 season, according to a press release. NU had previously produced “The Foundation” for spring football practices and summer basketball campaigns.

The first episode will debut Aug. 31 at 4:30 p.m. on CSN Chicago. Watch the full video below:

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson has said he’ll try to diversify the rushing attack more this season, but that doesn’t mean junior Justin Jackson won’t remain the centerpiece of the unit — and the entire offense.

Jackson was, indisputably, the most reliable and talented aspect of the Wildcats’ attack last season, but he was by no means explosive. Despite ranking third in the nation with 312 carries, he managed just 25 runs of longer than 10 yards, or about 1.9 such runs per game.

However, Jackson’s ability to pound the ball for medium-distance gains proved invaluable for the Cats’ conservative offense, and his durability and even improvement as the carries piled up was a major reason why the team ended the regular season with five straight close victories.

The “Ball Carrier” ran for at least 116 yards in each of the final four regular season games and tallied three of his five total touchdowns during that stretch, as well. As the days grew colder and Jackson’s workload increased from 14 carries per game in October to 31 carries per game in November, he actually said he felt better physically than he did earlier in the season.

MacPherson, coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff — as well as Jackson himself — certainly know that inexplicable trend isn’t sustainable, though, and will need to take greater action to preserve their best offensive player in 2016.

Other units should be able to help the cause. A more seasoned Clayton Thorson should be expected to throw the ball more. A speedier receiving group should be able to force opposing linebackers and defensive backs farther downfield from the line of scrimmage.

And a healthier offensive line should be able to closer emulate its performance against Stanford last year, when it steadily pushed back the Cardinal’s bigger defense, rather than its performance for the 2015 season as a whole: 89th in stuff rate (carries for zero or negative yards), 116th in sack rate.

Nevertheless, the most critical step will be to spread the carries around more liberally.

Senior Warren Long was a solid change-of-pace back in 2015, finding the endzone just as often as Jackson (five times) and actually averaging a full yard more per carry (5.5 vs. 4.5). Yet he touched the ball only 63 times to Jackson’s 333 — ideally, 60 to 80 more of those touches should be in Long’s hands in 2016.

Long, who is one inch taller and 17 pounds bigger than Jackson and hasn’t fumbled since 2013, could be used for the majority of up-the-middle runs — always a favorite of offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

A pair of speedsters, sophomore Auston Anderson and redshirt freshman John Moten IV, will also compete for occasional carries (and for heavy playing time late in routs).

MacPherson told the Daily in April the competition within the unit should motivate all of the backs to improve, but the team has struggled to get them all healthy and competing at the same time this offseason. Long missed spring camp recovering from surgery and Anderson has been absent for the team’s last two scrimmages this August.

Somehow, Jackson — throughout all of the bruising he’s taken over the past two seasons and even back in high school — has been the one staying injury-free, and that is a good sign. For all of the talk about balancing the workload, there’s no question that Jackson remains the most dangerous playmaker on NU’s roster.

Jackson has a tendency to find a rhythm when he’s heavily involved in the offense: in games where he’s carried 20 times or more, he’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry, versus 3.4 yards per carry in game with fewer than 20 carries.

With that in mind, the Cats could try to aim for that 20-carry marker while limiting or eliminating his 30-or-more-carry games (of which he had four last season).

One way or another, though, Jackson needs to be toting the rock frequently for the Cats.

2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale

2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

The Wildcats’ receiving corps has lost a vital component.

Former superback Dan Vitale graduated in the spring and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving a gap in the passcatchers’ lineup that will be difficult to fill. Northwestern’s receivers struggled last year, ranking 115th in receptions and 120th in receiving yards in the FBS, making his loss that much more crucial. Vitale led the team by comfortable margins in both those categories last season.

With Vitale out of the picture, senior Austin Carr, who had the second most receiving yards last season and the highest average yards per reception, is pretty much guaranteed the top spot on the depth chart. Carr started in four games last season and saw playing time in nearly every contest. He also has had time to develop a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, which will squarely position him as the leader of the receiving pack this fall.

The ensemble cast, however, proves a bit trickier to trace, especially with the graduation of former starting receivers Christian Jones and Miles Shuler.

It seems likely that junior Garrett Dickerson will find a home at superback, a position devised by NU coaching that combines the roles of a fullback and tight end into one all-purpose offensive powerhouse. Dickerson is largely untested on the field, although he appeared in flashes in nearly every game last season and caught at least one pass in nine of those games. Senior Andrew Scanlan, who appeared in nine games last season, also seems a likely contender for one of the three starting wide receiver slots.

In February, Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced some position changes that brought in juniors Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard, and redshirt-freshman Steven Reese, at the wide receiver position in attempt to shore up depth.

Vault, formerly a running back, has had some experience with Cats passing plays and could prove an interesting asset. His speed earned him two touchdowns on kickoff returns last season — the most return touchdowns any NU player has had in a single season. His three career touchdown returns also make him the all-time program leader in the category. Considering the talent he’s already displayed, and that Vault saw playing time at the wide receiver position during the Outback Bowl, it seems likely Vault will be tapped to start this fall. He’ll fit in well out of the slot as the Z-receiver as a speedy and evasive route-runner.

McShepard and Reese, formerly defensive players, face a steeper learning curve and are unlikely to make much of an impact, at least immediately, on the offense.

Without Vitale, and to a lesser extent Jones and Shuler, the Cats’ receiving corps is pretty thin. Look to Carr for reliability and a glimmer of receivers’ past, and watch Vault for an explosive play or two, but generally, Wildcats fans should expect to hear a lot of “Justin Jackson the ball carrier!” this fall.

2016 Football Preview: Offensive line eyes healthy, reliable season

2016 Football Preview: Offensive line eyes healthy, reliable season
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Despite Northwestern’s strong 10-win season in 2015, there’s still a great deal of improvement to be made at offensive line. The Wildcats were plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season. However,  if NU can solidify a starting five that works consistently and cooperatively all season, the Cats’ offense will take a massive step forward.

With a lineup composed largely of upperclassmen, NU’s offensive line struggled to develop any continuity, as 10 different Cats players started at line throughout last season. In addition, NU had significant trouble with pass protection. They ranked No. 101 out of 128 schools in adjusted sack rate, a metric that modifies sack rate based on strength of schedule.

In addition to the problems the offensive line had with protecting then-redshirt-freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson last season, statistics surprisingly show that the Cats’ run-blocking was also poor. Although running back Justin Jackson ran for more than 1,400 yards last season during his sophomore campaign, it was more a result of Jackson’s volume and talent than the line’s run-blocking.

NU ranked No. 110 in the country in power success rate, or the conversion rate of runs that are two yards or less. On top of this, the Cats found themselves at below-average in six other run-blocking statistics. The offensive line certainly has room to grow in 2016, but if the Cats can establish stability, their entire offense has potential to thrive.

Personnel:

The Cats’ offensive line is mostly veterans. Senior Eric Olson was a staple at right tackle for NU last year, and he should continue to do so in his final year. In addition, coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated that senior Connor Mahoney will start at left guard.

The youngest projected starter on the line is sophomore Blake Hance, who ended up starting eight games for the Cats as a redshirt freshman in 2015.

The position that remains up in the air for NU is center. Senior Ian Park and junior Brad North both spent time at center last season. In addition, whoever loses the position battle may be able to challenge 6th-year-senior Shane Mertz for his job at right guard.

The Cats also have young talent in sophomores Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, as well as redshirt-freshmen Jared Thomas, Adam Lemke-Bell, and Andrew Otterman. However, unless the injury bug strikes NU’s starters again, these players likely won’t see much playing time this season.

2016 outlook:

NU needs a balanced offense this year, and that means an offensive line that gives Thorson more time to throw. With three to four seniors projected to start at offensive line for the Cats, they have the potential to use their experience to create a steady, high-chemistry offensive line that allows NU’s offense to take huge strides forward.

Trevor Siemian to start Broncos’ next preseason game, Week 1 role unclear

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Trevor Siemian to start Broncos’ next preseason game, Week 1 role unclear
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

After earning the start in the Broncos’ second preseason game last Saturday, Trevor Siemian will begin Denver’s next preseason game under center, coach Gary Kubiak said Thursday.

Kubiak added that all three QBs on Denver’s roster — Siemian, Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch — will see playing time in Saturday’s upcoming contest against the Los Angeles Rams. It remains to be seen who will start the Broncos’ season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 8, but Kubiak said he will make a decision next week.

Siemian is also dealing with a sore shoulder, according to a report from the Denver Post.

In four drives against the San Francisco 49ers, Siemian completed 10-of-14 passes for 75 yards and also threw an interception, which the 49ers returned for a touchdown.

This post was updated at 2:43 p.m. with additional information.

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

During a 2015 season defined by close wins, Northwestern’s performance often came down to the play of the special teams units.

The Wildcats’ conservative ground-and-pound offense led to an abundance of three things: punts, field goals and a desperate need to squeeze points out of the return game. Despite a 10-3 record last year, NU has plenty of room to improve on all three fronts coming into this season.

The biggest bright spot, of course, was the play of then-sophomore running back Solomon Vault. The speedster returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015, and saved each for a big moment.

The first came against Duke, when Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half to flip a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 lead. The Cats didn’t trail for the remainder of the game. The second came against Penn State, when NU needed every point it could get after starting quarterback Clayton Thorson left the game with an injury. The Cats went on to win on a last second field goal.

Vault, now a wide receiver, will still be the guy on kickoff returns, and there’s every reason to believe he can muster a repeat performance. Fans should hope that he does, because the rest of the special teams lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence.

The speedy Vault will not be returning punts, leaving a position of glaring need wide-open heading into NU’s opening week contest against Western Michigan. Then-senior receiver Miles Shuler fulfilled the role for much of last season, but chose to run back only 11 punts in 12 games.

Sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel is the presumptive favorite to win the job, having returned two punts in 2015 before suffering an injury. Diminutive sophomore wideout Jelani Roberts would also be a good option. As long as the Cats put somebody back deep who actually tries to catch the ball, they should see improvement.

In the kicking game, senior kicker Jack Mitchell and junior punter Hunter Niswander both return to their respective roles this season. Though Mitchell earned a reputation for being clutch after his game-winning boot against Penn State, his overall performance ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.

He attempted 27 kicks, tied for second in the conference, but finished tied for ninth among 12 qualifying kickers with a 67 percent success rate. Even more frustratingly, he missed three of his 28 point-after attempts.

The dismal offense that may have hindered Mitchell should have helped Niswander, who instead turned in the worst punting performance in the Big Ten. Niswander led the conference with 85 punts — 11 more than any other punter — and finished dead last among qualifying players with an average of 38 yards per punt.

NU will still be a team reliant on a steady run game and a dominant defense, meaning Niswander will have to be better.

At the very least he’ll have the consistency of senior long snapper Chris Fitzpatrick in front of him. Fitzpatrick, entering his third season as the starter, is remarkably unremarkable – a perfect quality for a long snapper.