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Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: State of the 2017 offense

The Northwestern Wildcats enter the 2017 season with optimism about their offense. The return of Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson give it legitimate star power.

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes

At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Northwestern Wildcat offense was a complete mystery. Or, if not a mystery, the expectations were exceedingly low.

The team in 2015 had an almost non-existent offense, averaging 19.5 points per game and just 327.1 yards per game. Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, despite leading the team to a 10-win season, was still largely kept under wraps. The team would routinely run on third and longs, handing things over to a dominant defense to carry the majority of the load.

The start of the 2016 season seemed to show no sign of this slowing down. The Wildcats struggled to move the ball in a one-point loss to Western Michigan, fumbling the ball at the goal line for the win. Things only got worse the next week when Northwestern managed just one touchdown — late in the fourth quarter — to Illinois State.

It is safe to say, the Redbirds’ banked-in field goal for a 9-7 victory at Ryan Field was the low point in the season. Northwestern’s defense could not carry the load and the offense was not going to get itself going.

Preview Week: Lessons from 2017 | 

Things changed rather quickly. Justin Jackson continued to make an assault on every Northwestern rushing record, but Clayton Thorson finally found some confidence and some freedom. He connected with Austin Carr again. . . and again . . . and again. Northwestern’s offense came alive.

By the end of the season, the Wildcats could rely on a fairly balanced attack offensively with Jackson pacing things on the ground and Thorson providing a strong aerial attack. Northwestern’s offense became, at least, average. And that was a huge step following a disappointing 2015 season.

It feels like NU is on the precipice of the kind of balanced offense Pat Fitzgerald has always wanted. The team has a “bell-cow” running back in Justin Jackson, who has no signs of slowing down. And Clayton Thorson is generating early NFL buzz, continuing to show growth.

The Wildcats have the veteran pieces in place that could lead to a special year on the offensive end. With the defense in a bit of a transitional state, despite continued recruiting and depth gains, the Wildcats may rely more heavily on the offense to control games.

Northwestern, after a few years struggling to find its identity and gain rhythm and consistency, finally started looking like itself again. The familiar bubble screens, passes to the perimeter and quick passing returned. Mixed in with an above-average run game, the Wildcats became a deadly offensive team again.

The expectation is for that to continue.

Key Players Returning: Justin Jackson, RB; Clayton Thorson, QB; Brad North, C; Garrett Dickerson, SB
Key Players Gone: Austin Carr, WR; Solomon Vault, WR (injury); Andrew Scanlan, WR

The Good News Is . . .

Any time a team returns stars at skill positions — specifically at quarterback — that usually signals the offense is about to take off.

Clayton Thorson had a breakout sophomore year, throwing for 3,182 yards, more than double the total in his freshman year. Thorson relied pretty heavily on Austin Carr (more on his departure in a bit), but the throws he made were nothing short of elite.

Thorson came in as a four-star quarterback and everyone projected he would have the size and arm strength to make some difficult throws. Northwestern kept him largely under wraps his freshman year, keeping his throws simple and the decisions simple for him.

In his sophomore year, the Wildcats turned him loose some. And it paid dividends.

The belief is Thorson will be able to shoulder a heavier load. With a new wide receiving corps. — Austin Carr graduated and Solomon Vault is out for the year with an injury — Thorson will have to get into a rhythm with his receivers fairly quickly. But there is no reason to believe the junior will not step up.

Thorson should take full control of the offense and be given even more opportunity to lead and grow.

Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern Wildcats

Garrett Dickerson #9 of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates scoring a touchdown in front of linebacker Mike Caprara #30 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the second half of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Northwestern defeated Pittsburgh 31-24.
(Dec. 27, 2016 – Source: Adam Hunger/Getty Images North America)

The Bad News Is . . .

Northwestern has all the pieces in place for a strong offense. . . except for at receiver.

Austin Carr caught 90 of 282 passes completed last year and gained 1,247 yards of the team’s 3,186 yards thrown. He caught 12 of the team’s 22 passing touchdowns. Carr was very much the passing offense last year. Thorson did not do a great job spreading things around.

Throw in a lower body injury to Solomon Vault that will keep him out for the year and another major offensive weapon is gone. The Wildcats are somewhat short on experienced and productive passing weapons.

That is not to say Northwestern does not have potential to grow.

Flynn Nagel is a junior who has shown a lot of speed in special teams but has yet to translate to the offense. Nagel is the top returning receiver with 40 catches for 447 yards.

Garrett Dickerson had a big Pinstripe Bowl at superback (Northwestern’s version of the tight end) and could figure to be a big part of the passing game. But everyone here is unproven.

And while Northwestern has a speedy receiver like Nagel leading the way, the team lacks the possession receiver like Carr to eat up those yards and loosen defenses for those deep passes or the run. Receivers like Carr have been Northwestern’s bread and butter for years.

Macan Wilson could be a candidate to step into this role, but he is unproven — 22 catches for 306 yards last year as a junior. But inevitably someone will step up into this role.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeyes

IOWA CITY, IOWA- OCTOBER 1: Running back Justin Jackson #21 of the Northwestern Wildcats finds a hole in the first quarter in front of defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson #67 of the Iowa Hawkeyes on October 1, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
(Sept. 30, 2016 – Source: Matthew Holst/Getty Images North America)

The Good News Is . . .

Thorson will have plenty of help. He may not even be Northwestern’s top offensive option. That would be Big Ten leading rusher Justin Jackson.

Jackson tallied his third 1,000 yard rushing season, the first Northwestern player to accomplish that feat. And he is the kind of back that never seems to slow down. He gets stronger as the game goes on and could rack up big yards toward the end of the game.

Simply, Jackson is tireless and does not need much space or time to burst through the hole and pick up positive yards. He wears defenses down. Quietly, Jackson may be the best back in the Big Ten (all due respect to Saquon Barkley).

The Bad News Is . . .

The offensive line returns four of five starters from last year. That experience should help the team establish that strong run game and give Thorson the time to throw. But that may or may not be a good thing. Although they struggled at times with protecting Thorson in the pocket, Thorson’s poise and experience should negate some of these effects.

The group struggled at times with protecting Thorson in the pocket, Thorson’s poise and experience should negate some of these effects. But it is still a bit of a concern. They gave up 39 sacks last year. Some of that is on Thorson, he got a little rushed in the pocket and would tuck and run before going through all his progressions. But the offensive line deserves some blame there.

There will have to better synergy there. And the offensive line will have to create running lanes for players not named Justin Jackson. The Wildcats have struggled to find a solid backup running back and some of that is the offensive line not creating obvious running lanes.

This should be a good group. But one that still has a lot of improvement. Returning experience alone may not be enough to make it reliable.

What it all means for 2017?

The Wildcats are returning their two top offensive weapons from last year at two of the most important positions. The team is expecting big things from Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson this year. And there is no reason not to believe a junior three-year starter at quarterback and a senior four-year starter at running back cannot carry a heavy load.

It all means Northwestern is expecting a strong offensive showing this year. It may not be quite to the Randy Walker days of the early 2000s, but the team should be able to rely on their offense to win shootouts and carry the team when the defense struggles.

At least, it should be relied on to switch field position and control the clock against weaker opponents and keep the team in just about every game.

Northwestern will have some holes to fill. Young players will need to step up and replace production from last year. Specifically in the passing game. But this is where Thorson’s experience should help. His improvement will mean the improvement of the whole offense.

The Wildcats have some questions for their offensive line. But with their experience they should be able to cover those up.

This is a veteran group at several key positions. It feels like the kind of mix that leads to a special season for Northwestern.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.


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