It takes a lot for collegiate head coaches to start a freshman at the quarterback position because of how difficult it is for some kids to make that transition from high school to college.
But then you get guys like Bernie Kosar, Johnny Manziel, and Jameis Winston and you know from the jump that this is the guy to lead your team.
That’s probably what Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was thinking when he named redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson as the Wildcats starting quarterback coming into this Saturday’s season-opener at home against Pac-12 powerhouse Stanford at Ryan Field.
Fizgerald made the announcement via Twitter Aug. 27. Thorson won the job over fifth-year senior Zack Oliver, who played in 12 games with just one start and redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti, who appeared in four games as a redshirt freshman.
From all accounts, Fitzgerald would rather have a more experienced guy under center against a solid defensive squad like Stanford, but the things that Thorson brings to the table were too hard to ignore. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Thorson does have a strong arm and if you watch him on film he is not your typical stiff, drop-back passer. He’s a pretty good athlete.
If he can’t find an open receiver, Thorson will pull it down and run with it, something Fitzgerald likes from his quarterbacks. The Wheaton, Ill. native was recruited for what he can do with his legs as well as with his arm. The recruiting website, Rivals.com listed him as the No. 6 dual threat quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class. ESPN’s Recruiting Nation listed him as a four-start recruit.
During his senior year in high school, Thorson passed for 2,809 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also gained 630 yards on the ground and scored 12 touchdowns. As a high schooler, Thorson reportedly ran a 4.5 40-yard dash.
From what watching him on video, Thorson was like a man among young boys. If he wasn’t throwing accurate passes down the middle, he was running through and around his competition.
One of the things that Thorson did last season during his redshirt year was run the Wildcats scout team offense. During Northwestern’s Football Media Day, Thorson said that it gave him the confidence to compete for the starting job.
“During camp and during the season last year, I took 60 or 70 reps a day as the scout team quarterback and that really helped me adjust to the speed of the game and just what defenses do in general,” Thorson said.
The only thing that is unknown about Thorson is that he has yet to play his first college football game. So we don’t know how this young man is going to react against a Cardinal defense that ranked No. 3 in the nation last season in total defense. Thorson will no doubt face some adversity in this game.
If Thorson has a terrible game, Fitzgerald might throw Oliver or Aliviti into the game. The Northwestern head coach is not above alternating quarterbacks if he has to light a spark into the team.
Three weeks prior to naming Thorson the starting quarterback, Fitzgerald said he’s willing to play two guys at the quarterback position if it helps the team win ball games.
“We’ll do what’s right for the team,” Fitzgerald said back on Aug. 12. “In the past, we’ve had one quarterback, in the past we won a lot of football games with two quarterbacks. I think ideally you have a situation where you have 1A and 1B. You’ve got the starter and you’ve got a young man who’s ready to go in no matter what happens.”
Considering all the accolades and physical upside Thorson has, Fitzgerald wants to see how his young quarterback reacts in different situations. It’s going to be a learning experience even if you started one of the quarterbacks who have limited experience.
At the end of the day, Thorson has a lot of upside and the pedigree the other players don’t have and you might as well find out what he can do now rather than let him wait his turn behind the other quarterbacks.