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.