Football: With nearly four dozen starts under his belt, Thorson establishes himself as Northwestern great

October 26, 2018

Mick McCall has been coaching college football since 1979.

In those 40 seasons, for all the players he’s coached, he’s never seen one take notes like Clayton Thorson.

“I don’t know how many notebooks he has, I mean they may be stacked like this,” McCall said, spreading his hands wide. “I don’t know. But he’s taken a ton of notes. And they’re really, really clear. They’re really, really in-depth. And really to the point of what he’s trying to do.”

Thorson’s propensity for studying the game at an obsessive level started before he even got to Northwestern. While he was at Wheaton North High School, he spent countless hours working with Kent Graham — a former NFL quarterback and a fellow Wheaton North alum — and watching film whenever he could.

He knew when he got to Northwestern he would redshirt his freshman season, as the Wildcats already had senior Trevor Siemian ready to go as their starter. But he still took detailed notes on each opponent, hoping to learn something for the coming years.

Four years later, after a career at the helm of the Wildcats’ offense, he has filled enough notebooks to last a lifetime. And he’ll use everything he has to lead NU into a season-defining three-game gauntlet against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa.

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It might be hard to believe, but Thorson didn’t start at quarterback until his senior year of high school. Instead, he played receiver while John Peltz — who went on to play at Division III Wheaton College — earned the starting nod. Thorson still got snaps at quarterback, and he said playing receiver ultimately made him a better quarterback and a better athlete.

“When you just watched him, at 7-on-7s in the summer, just the way the ball came out of his hand, you could just tell that he had a little something special,” Wheaton North coach Joel Wardynski said. “And then when it was time to move his feet and sprint out, it was just so easy and natural for him to do those things.”

A four-star recruit, Thorson had offers from all over the map — Syracuse, Ole Miss and Penn State, among others — but he said he always knew he wanted to play in the Big Ten. He had siblings who competed at schools in the conference, and wanted them to have a chance to watch him play.

He spent a lot of time with superback Dan Vitale during his visits to campus. Vitale is also from nearby Wheaton, so the two connected right away. And Thorson appreciated the “straight talk” he got from Vitale and other players he talked with. So he committed to NU in the spring of his junior year, before he’d even started a high school game.

After Thorson’s redshirt year, the Cats had a quarterback competition on their hands. There were three options: Thorson, sophomore Matt Alviti and senior Zack Oliver. None of the signal-callers pulled away during spring practices, and the competition continued into the summer.

“There was a time when everything just started to click for Clayton and he just started doing things the most consistent out of all of them,” said McCall, Northwestern’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “And he just continued to kind of rise and rise and rise.”

On Aug. 27, 2015, coach Pat Fitzgerald named Thorson the starter. The quarterback who only started one year in high school has been under center each of the Cats’ 46 games since.

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Thorson was at Wheaton North, watching its rivalry game against Wheaton South and chatting with one of his old coaches a week ahead of his own college debut against No. 21 Stanford.

“That’s the line. You guys are 13-point underdogs.”

Thorson smiled.

“I was like, ‘I kind of like that,’” Thorson told The Daily.

Daily file photo by Daniel Tian
Thorson scrambles during Northwestern’s 2015 game against Iowa.

A week later, Thorson introduced himself to the college football world by shocking the Cardinal — who went on to win the Rose Bowl — in a 16-6 win. The game’s only touchdown came when Thorson ran away from the Stanford defense for an electric 41-yard score.

By every measurement, NU had a successful season in 2015. But it certainly wasn’t the passing game that propelled the Cats to so many wins. NU chose instead to rely on star running back Justin Jackson and an elite defense. Thorson threw for over 200 yards just once and threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

That changed in 2016. Aided by the emergence of receiver Austin Carr — who went from walk-on to Biletnikoff Award finalist — Thorson threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns, both good for fourth in the Big Ten. McCall unleashed Thorson and the NU passing attack, and Thorson had more than 30 attempts 11 times after doing that just twice in 2015.

But consistency was a problem throughout the season. Thorson juxtaposed impressive outings, like a 352-yard, three-touchdown outburst at Purdue, with thoroughly disappointing ones, like a 17-of-41 showing in an embarrassing loss to FCS Illinois State.

Thorson said a win at Iowa in October, when he threw for three touchdowns — all to Carr — and zero interceptions helped propel him through the rest of the campaign.

“There’s so much to be said about playing the quarterback position with confidence,” Thorson said. “Because if you don’t, you’re gonna be a bad player. And that’s not like a cocky ‘I’m the best, I’m this, I’m that.’ It’s a — if you ask a lot of quarterbacks — it’s a quiet confidence. ‘I can do this, I’m gonna go do this.’ So it gave me a little more validation.”

He finished the season by leading NU to its second bowl win in 68 years.

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It was Dec. 29, 2017. After a 2-3 start to the season, NU had won seven straight games to lock in a matchup with Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

The Cats then pulled off a rare feat. They executed a trick play almost flawlessly, as Thorson took the snap, handed the ball to freshman running back Jeremy Larkin and took off down the field. By the time Larkin wound up to pass, Thorson was wide open. He made the catch at the 15-yard line with a Kentucky defender bearing down on him.

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
Thorson is consoled by running back Justin Jackson after suffering an injury in the 2017 Music City Bowl.

Then came the hit.

“Right when I got tackled, I knew there was something wrong,” Thorson said. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Thorson grabbed his knee right away. An MRI would later reveal what everyone watching the play had feared: Thorson had a torn ACL. The clock started ticking immediately for him to make it back for NU’s opener, just 245 days later against Purdue.

Dr. James Andrews performed his surgery — the same Dr. Andrews who has surgically operated on a plethora of high-profile athletes, including Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook.

Thorson returned to Evanston in the middle of the winter. He had to learn to walk through the snow with crutches and work his way back slowly. Just over seven months after Andrews repaired his knee, Thorson started NU’s opener at Purdue.

“For him to work as hard as he did and as diligent as he was, and through all that stuff just tells you what kind of a competitor he is,” McCall said. “Even though he’s such a nice guy, he wants to win in the worst way.”

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2018 will likely end up being Thorson’s best statistical season. Despite playing on a snap count for the first three games while working his way back to 100 percent, Thorson has put up huge numbers and already set new career highs for passing yards — twice. He runs less, which is probably due to his injury but also a testament to the passer he has become. When Thorson is on, NU is a hard team to beat, even in the loaded Big Ten.

“Well, he’s a great player,” Fitzgerald said earlier this season. “You want to talk about a relentless work ethic, it’s him. To come back off the injury that he had, to be able to play in the opener, to now each week get stronger and stronger and stronger, I think the performances just speak for themselves.”

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding
Thorson drops back for a pass in a game earlier this month against Nebraska.

A week after a season-altering win against Michigan State in which Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns, NU struggled for much of the day against a winless Nebraska team. Then the Cats got the ball back on their own half-yard line, trailing by a touchdown with just over two minutes left and no timeouts.

Thorson simply was not fazed. It was just another two-minute drill, he said. So he drove NU the length of the field, threw for a score with mere seconds remaining and led the Cats to a huge overtime win.

“When the team needed him most, he went out there and did that thing,” Jackson said last week. “So that’s my dude.”

In that game, he threw 64 passes — the same number he attempted over a three-game stretch in 2015. Sans Jackson, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers, NU has had no choice but to lean on Thorson in a way the Cats have never had to lean on a quarterback before. And he’s welcomed it.

With Thorson at the helm, the Cats are at the top of the Big Ten West and off to their best conference start since 2000.

When all is said and done, Thorson’s name will be at or close to the top of nearly every passing record in the NU record book. He’s on pace to break Brett Basanez’s career passing record, but he’s somehow doing so under the radar. It’s not at all like last year, when Jackson broke Damien Anderson’s career rushing record after literally years of talk about when he’d do it. Thorson has the same cool, calm, composed demeanor as the man called “The Ball Carrier.” He just doesn’t have the nickname.

He’ll need about 225 yards per game to break Basanez’s record. But when Thorson is asked questions about himself, he’ll answer by talking about the team — “you” to him becomes “we” in the answer.

For example: What does he want to be remembered for?

“Hopefully, a season of winning for Northwestern football,” he said. “And the catalyst, our group that we have here, is a catalyst for hopefully Big Ten championships consistently and national championships in the future. So hopefully just a period of success for Northwestern football.”

Thorson came into this season already tied for the touchdown record; he’s since shattered it. He’ll surely break a few more records before he bids Evanston farewell and heads to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine.

The NFL Draft buzz has been getting louder and louder for some time now. Depending on who you ask, Thorson could project as high as a first-round pick. He certainly has the right measurables and the right mindset.

He said he hears the chatter and has always dreamed about playing in the NFL. One person who’s high on the gunslinger’s chances is Siemian, who was drafted in the seventh round back in 2015.

“He’s had such a great career to this point and he’s played in so many games. That’s only going to help him,” Siemian told The Daily in June. “He’s going to work hard, he’s going to learn a bunch and he’s going to keep getting better.”

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The last time NU beat Wisconsin was 2015, Thorson’s first year as a starter. He threw for 60 yards.

The Badgers have beaten the Cats the last two seasons en route to a couple of Big Ten West titles. NU sits at 4-1 in the Big Ten, sure, but Saturday’s game is the first true test of whether this team is ready to top the division. To be the best, you have to beat the best.

Daily file photo by David Lee
Thorson warms up prior to Northwestern’s 2017 game at Wisconsin.

So this week, he’s already got the notebook flipped to the “Wisconsin” page from last year. And probably the year before, and the year before that, and, well, the year before that.

Most of those notes come from the film he watches seemingly nonstop.

“He’s emulating his role model, and that’s Peyton Manning,” Jackson said. “And that’s what the greats do. That’s why he’s able to go out there and anticipate throws on the field. That’s how you become a great quarterback and a great player overall.”

Thorson attended the Manning Passing Academy after his sophomore season, and he would’ve gone again after last, but he was busy graduating from college. He’s not shy to talk about Manning — the reason why he wears the No. 18 jersey — and the impact that camp had on him.

He said the most important lesson Manning taught him was about how to watch film: In a room, with the lights off and the door closed. Why is the door shut? Because players who keep it open are only watching film to show teammates and coaches that they are, not to actually get better.

“I’ve seen players in the past who love to show that they’re doing something,” Thorson said. “I’m like, ‘You’re only fooling yourself.’ The other guys see you, and more importantly they see you on the field, see you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

So the door stays closed, and Thorson takes his notes.

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Twitter: @thejonahdylan