Football: Northwestern focuses on quarterbacks ahead of season


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Senior Zack Oliver is one of three quarterbacks vying for Northwestern’s starting job, along with redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson and sophomore Matt Alviti

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was first asked about his team’s quarterback depth chart six questions into Big Ten Media Day on Friday.

“I’m a little surprised it took this long for that question,” Fitzgerald said.

Throughout the day, quarterbacks proved a persistent subject of conversation for Fitzgerald and his players.

The basic takeaway: Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, sophomore Matt Alviti and senior Zack Oliver remain in open competition for the starting spot, as the Wildcats roster learns to play with each of its three signal-callers.

“There wasn’t a clear separation,” Fitzgerald said of his quarterbacks’ play this spring and summer. “We would have loved to have it happen, but it didn’t. And we’d rather have it happen organically than to force something.”

Fitzgerald said he and offensive coordinator Mick McCall are asking for input from offensive team leaders, soliciting opinions from players like senior receiver Christian Jones, senior superback Dan Vitale and senior guard Geoff Mogus.

With the quarterbacks — Claymack Althoriver? Mazaton Thoroliti? — switching off frequently during practice, Vitale said he is developing chemistry with all three of them.

“They all bring something different to the table,” the superback said. “But I’m curious to see if someone can come to the forefront throughout camp.”

The three quarterbacks offer varying levels of skill and experience. Oliver is the oldest, a pocket passer who started last season’s final game when then-quarterback Trevor Siemian injured his knee in the season’s penultimate game. Alviti is a former four-star recruit who earned snaps in 2014 as primarily a ground threat. And Thorson is the untested wunderkind with the least college experience but perhaps the most talent of the trio.

Jones said all the receivers and even some defensive backs are working with the quarterbacks to help them understand various elements of the college game.

“Everybody is just worried about what they can do to help each one reach their full potential,” Jones said. “Because they’re all extremely competitive, and they’re all going to do what they can to get that spot.”

This isn’t the first time NU has grappled with quarterback turmoil. For two seasons the team rotated since-graduated Kain Colter and Siemian, a duo that carried the Cats to a 10-3 record in 2012, including a victory in that January’s Gator Bowl.

As Fitzgerald said Friday, “We’ve been here before.”

Whoever emerges from this summer’s quarterback competition will face a daunting task: rescuing NU from back-to-back 5-7 seasons and resurrecting an offense that helped doom the team to that disappointment. The Cats ranked 107th nationally (of 128 teams) in total yards per game in 2014, down from 75th, 63rd and 34th in the preceding three seasons.

“We just were so unlike ourselves last year,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been one of the better offenses throughout my time, but we took a step backwards last year.”

The good news is that — quarterback aside — NU’s team returns most of its key offensive skill players and regains Jones, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. With Jones, Vitale, sophomore superback Garrett Dickerson and senior receivers Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler, the Cats have strong potential at a position group that underperformed last year.

Throw in sophomore running back Justin Jackson, who comes off one of the best freshman campaigns in program history, and the Cats’ offense could be formidable provided 1) The offensive line holds up and 2) That darn quarterback situation is worked out, with one of the trio not only earning the position but excelling at it.

Given Thorson, Alviti and Oliver’s disparate skill-sets, the offense presumably can’t fully prepare for NU’s Sept. 5 opener against Stanford until a starter has been tabbed.

Vitale said receiver-quarterback rapport is important, but he also suggested perhaps the quarterback competition is overblown.

“It really doesn’t matter who’s in the backfield,” Vitale said. “Half the time I don’t even notice who’s playing quarterback.”

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