The first time Clayton Thorson stepped onto the field at Ryan Field, the Northwestern Wildcats were trying to do everything to make things easy for him. The true freshman quarterback had a tall task ahead of him. The Stanford Cardinal were in town. The top-10 team
The true freshman quarterback had a tall task ahead of him. The Stanford Cardinal were in town. The top-10 team presented a difficult challenge for the Wildcats in the first game of the season.
Northwestern asked Thorson to manage the game, keeping his throws and reads simple. The gameplan was conservative. Northwestern relied heavily on its defense to keep the score close.
And then the hole opened up. Thorson burst through the line and saw nothing but green in front of him. A 57-yard run later, Thorson had delivered Northwestern a comfortable lead. The upset was on and the Wildcats’ season took on a new tenor.
Things have gotten a bit more complex since that first game. His freshman year, despite a 10-3 season and an Outback Bowl appearance, saw Thorson largely contained. Northwestern kept things simple and relied heavily on Justin Jackson to create offense. They remained conservative. The four-star quarterback’s talent was still kept under wraps.
Even in the three losses, all games where Northwestern got blown out, the team rarely let Thorson turn things loose. They guarded his confidence carefully.
His sophomore year was different. The reigns were loosened. All of a sudden, Thorson was slinging the ball to the sideline from the opposite hash finding senior Austin Carr time and time again despite double coverage and the secondary’s entire attention.
Thorson’s transformation last year — going from 1,522 passing yards to 3,182 passing yards — was astounding. He added a new dimension to Northwestern’s offense — namely giving it some semblance of consistency. As the Wildcats got stronger to rally for a bowl berth, it was largely on Thorson’s shoulders. His improvement led to the team’s improvement.
Certainly, Thorson still left something to be desired. The team still did not quite trust him with the game on the line. The default for the Wildcats is to run. And who could blame them with Justin Jackson in the backfield?
Northwestern’s typically stout defense will go through something of a transition this offseason after the loss of Anthony Walker and several key members of the front seven. The onus for Northwestern to take that next step — from scrounging for a bowl game to legitimate (if surprising) Big Ten West contender — will lie on Thorson’s shoulders.
Thorson took a big leap last year. He needs to take another leap this year.
At least early on, there appears to be confidence he will take that step. Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com ranked Thorson the fifth best underclassmen quarterback prospect in the country. Early NFL buzz is still a new thing at Northwestern.
Looking at Thorson’s season last year, it is easy to see that potential. He made some incredibly tight throws throughout the season, even making them across hash marks. Thorson has the physical talent at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds to stand in the pocket and the arm strength to put the ball anywhere. He has shown plenty of poise running the ball and finding holes and lanes. If anything, Thorson tucks the ball and runs too quickly instead of standing in the pocket and delivering a throw.
A lot of that may still be the reigns Northwestern has on him. Even last year, Northwestern’s playcalling was conservative. The team rightly relied heavily on its talented cadre of backs to ease pressure off the sophomore quarterback. Thorson thrived partly because of it.Now as a two-year starter
Now as a two-year starter, it is time for Thorson to take the reigns. For Northwestern to have success this season, Thorson needs to become more efficient and more of a playmaker. Without a star receiver, he has to make one again — like he did with Carr. He has to make multiple star receivers.
Thorson has every indication that he can step into this role. He doubled his passing yards last year and Northwestern’s offense began to look like it did when it was tearing up the Big Ten with quick passes to the perimeter and slants. Thorson adds the arm strength to make difficult throws across and down the field too. With speedsters like Flynn Nagel and Solomon Vault, Northwestern should have the threat to stretch the field.
Northwestern’s offense should have a lot more balance. And Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall need to find a way to lighten Justin Jackson’s load, as indefatigable as he may be. Thorson is the way to do this.
Thorson came to the Wildcats as one of the most highly touted quarterback prospects the Wildcats have ever picked up. He has shown that immense talent in winning the starting job as a freshman and growing as a sophomore.
Now, he needs to take over the team and make good on that talent potential yet again.
Everyone agrees Northwestern has a good shot of doing something special in this wide open Big Ten West. There are pitfalls — a young defense and unproven wide receivers first and foremost — but Thorson can be the leader who overcomes much of these deficits and takes Northwestern to that next level.