Who will be the starting quarterback on opening day at West Lafayette?
That is the big question facing the Northwestern Wildcats at the moment. It has been the question facing the team ever since Clayton Thorson went down with a torn ACL after catching a pass in the Music City Bowl.
The team has relied heavily on Thorson during his three years in Evanston, never really needing or developing a backup — aside from a stray Zach Oliver game-winning drive against Penn State during Clayton Thorson’s freshman year.
In the Music City Bowl alone, Northwestern passed it just nine times after Thorson’s injury in the first half. On the entire season, the team tallied just 27 passes from throwers not named Clayton Thorson. Senior Matt Alviti threw 22 of them.
The Wildcats are starting completely from scratch at quarterback if Thorson is unable to go. Much of spring practice focused on the quarterback battle and figuring out who would emerge to hold things steady while Thorson recovers. And there is no guarantee Thorson will even be ready at any point during the season.
T.J. Green, Andrew Marty and Aidan Smith are the favorites to take over when Northwestern travels to Purdue on Aug. 30. It is not particularly clear from spring practice who has the edge.
Knowing Pat Fitzgerald, he will hold that close to the vest and use Camp Kenosha and preseason practices to come to a final decision. It is still a very open battle.
It is within this context that the news of Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson’s transfer takes special precedence. Northwestern has major questions at quarterback beyond this year with Thorson’s graduation and Johnson provides a talented answer to that question.
The former five-star quarterback prospect announced his intention to transfer from Clemson. The Indiana product ultimately chose to head to the ACC over Northwestern, where his brother was a walk-on wide receiver. It did not take long for reports to surface that Northwestern would pursue him.
Obviously, Johnson is a talented player. What program could not use a talented player? He ended up finishing his time at Clemson completing 21 of 27 passes. But he was destined to be the third-string quarterback for the super-talented Tigers.
Johnson would have three years of eligibility remaining. If he sat out this year, he would be officially a junior. That is two years with a talented quarterback to keep up the team’s momentum.
But what does this say about the faith in the current crop of quarterbacks for the 2018 season?
Green is a a junior, Smith is a sophomore and Marty is a freshman. These are all young players who would have this year and years beyond to play and take ownership of the role.
The uncertainty over Thorson’s return to the team certainly plays a small role in that. It does not seem any of these players have any permanence.
Northwestern has been extremely fortunate to have a four-year quality starter. Before Thorson, Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter each held key roles for three years. Dan Persa had two years before them. There has been a lot of stability with Northwestern.
What was different about each of those is that, except with Thorson, there were quarterbacks with some experience ready to take the reigns. This year’s crop of quarterbacks with Thorson out do not have any experience. Northwestern is essentially starting from scratch with them all. They might as well be freshmen.
That is the big concern with the team this year. Jeremy Larkin is new to being the guy at running back in replacing Justin Jackson. Now the Wildcats are essentially replacing Thorson until he is healthy to return.
A 10-win season does not seem to be in the offing. It would certainly be a surprise.
There is obviously more to a team than its quarterback. But that position is obviously important. The Wildcats offense goes really conservative when it does not have faith in its quarterback. And while the defense is occasionally up to the challenge, the Cats are always better when they can sling the ball around and score points to give the defense some room for error.
The needs at quarterback could very well change once the season begins, of course. Someone could emerge. And even if Northwestern lands this talented recruit, he will have to prove himself on the field again.
The intrigue over who replaces Thorson after his graduation in 2019 will only get deeper.
The Wildcats’ questions at quarterback remains.