Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

With only eight weeks until the start of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2015-16 football season, there are far more questions than there are answers about the roster going into this year. The offensive side of the ball saw graduating seniors Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater and Brandon Vitabile go and there are no sure fire answers as to who is going to take those vital starting positions.

While there will be position battles all around, football teams live and die at the quarterback position. And while Siemian was never a great quarterback, he was experienced, comfortable in the system, and will not be easy to replace.

Now with Zack Oliver the only returning QB with a start under his belt, which came in the final game of the year against Illinois and saw him throw three interceptions and lose two fumbles, the position is officially up for grabs with no clear favorite in the bunch.

Vying for the position with Oliver will be 4-star recruits from the past two years,  Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. While it is possible that coach Pat Fitzgerald will try a tandem quarterback scheme at times to start the season, ideally one of them will step up and become the consistent man under center.

Here is a bit about each player, what to expect to see from them this year and why each has a case to be the starter.

Zack Oliver:

What to expect – Oliver is most likely to be the starter when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford, though that distinction is primarily due to him being a senior who has a bit of experience coming in for the oft injured Siemian last season. But if he wants to remain the starter, he is going to have to earn it. Oliver may have the best arm strength of the three, and his familiarity with the system is a plus, but he hasn’t shown enough to make a strong enough case for himself as the regular starter. He’ll have to take care of the ball, and with Prater gone and wide receiver still being a position with as many question marks as quarterback, he won’t have a reliable weapon down field to make big plays or bail him out of poor throws. He could see three or four starts to start the year while he becomes more comfortable in that role, but that may be as far as his leash goes.

Why he should start- There is a lot to be said about a player who is a senior, familiar with the system, and has real college game experience. If he can limit his give aways, he could be a good game manager in a “run-first” offense.

Clayton Thorson: 

What to expect – On the other end of the spectrum is the least experienced of the three, Clayton Thorson. Thorson is a big bodied pocket passer who comes in at 6’4″ and 200 pounds. And for his size, his footwork is solid and he does have the ability to run the ball. At Wheaton North High School he showed that he was a good situational passer with a high football IQ. I believe Thorson has the biggest long-term upside of the three quarterbacks with the potential for the most complete, all-around game. His size and ability to take a hit makes up for some of his lack of speed, and if he earns Fitzgerald’s trust early on, could see himself starting games and taking the majority of the snaps sooner rather than later.

Why he should start – Thorson may very well give them the best combination of winning games now and investing in the future. He has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback, and with no outright starter in place and so many questions at every other position but running back, the future is now, and that means starting Thorson.

Matt Alviti: 

What to expect – If Oliver has the arm and Thorson has the size, Alviti has the speed. In fact, his quickness and ability to run the ball is the best argument for him seeing time at quarterback. While Alviti likely doesn’t have enough of an all-around game to be an every down player, he could give them flexibility to run the bootleg. Alviti may be the most exciting of the three to watch, with a reputation as a “gunslinger”, but his height is in issue as a pocket passer. And while he did not see much time last season, knowing the offense and having some experience could help him to be more confident and comfortable going into this year.

Why he should start – If Northwestern is looking to “get off the bus running”, Alviti is their guy. He can take some of the pressure off of Justin Jackson, keep defenses guessing, and being a threat to run could open things up for his receivers.

No doubt quarterback will be the position battle to watch heading into the fall. Coach Fitz will have a lot of decisions to make, but this one will be the most important. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges as a favorite out of camp, or if this  remains a tight race heading into the first game of the season and beyond.

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