How did Clayton Thorson win Northwestern’s quarterback competition?
By being calm under pressure.
There was obviously a lot more than that behind Pat Fitzgerald’s decision to name Thorson, a redshirt freshman out of Wheaton North, the Wildcats’ starting quarterback for Saturday’s season-opener against Stanford. The head coach talked about poring over “empirical data.”
But when asked what makes Thorson so special, what was the one thing that made him stand out during this summer's position battle with Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti, Fitzgerald just talked about how calm Thorson is.
“I would say in practice, what I’ve seen is he’s just been pretty unflappable, he just goes out and plays. I don't think he puts too much stock in any specific play, I think he goes out and tries to play his best on every rep,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “And that shows a little bit more maturity than a redshirt freshman typically shows. Usually their body language and their attitude is either too high or too low based on the success of the play. I think that would be it, he’s pretty calm, he’s got a pretty calm demeanor. He’s a very talented guy, but he’s got a pretty calm demeanor.”
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And Thorson displayed that attitude when asked about it later on Monday.
“It’s about not getting too high or too low,” Thorson said. “As I was talking about with (offensive coordinator Mick) McCall earlier, you’ve just got to go to the next play. Bad plays are going to happen on Saturday. I’m going to mess up, but you’ve got to go to the next play. I think that’s where it comes from. If you’re too high or too low, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got another play. You just keep playing. There’s a lot of plays. We’re going to run a lot of plays on Saturday, and you’ve got to have a level head.”
Thorson will need to be calm, cool and collected as he starts his college football career Saturday against a Stanford team that usually ranks pretty high on the defensive leaderboards. Last season, the Cardinal ranked third in the country in total defense, allowing just 282.4 total offensive yards per game.
That’s quite the test in itself, but there’s also the stark difference in the two quarterbacks who will lead their teams at Ryan Field. Thorson will see his first game action as a college athlete. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is entering his fourth season as starter and has 32 career starts to his name.
It’s not a comparison Fitzgerald wants Thorson making.
“He’s just got to play within himself, not try to do too much,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of that, also, hopefully we’ll be bale to handle and help him with as a coaching staff. But just go do what he does and be him and nothing more, and that’s what I’ve seen him do since we named him the starter. He’s just gone out and been himself, and that’s what I fully expected he would be. Obviously the challenge is a little different now starting on Saturday, but that’s what I expect that he’ll do.”
But it doesn’t appear that confidence will be an issue for Thorson, who despite his lack of experience has established himself as a leader during the offseason. The departure of team captain and multi-year starter Trevor Siemian left a void that Thorson has done his best to step in and fill.
He already appears to have the confidence of his teammates, and one of this year’s captains, superback Dan Vitale, went as far to call Thorson the team’s most respected player.
“Last year we could all see the raw talent he has on the field and everything. This year, I think what was awesome about this camp and this offseason was watching him really grow into a leader and taking control of the offense,” Vitale said. “People respect him more than anyone on the team. That’s the biggest thing, I think, that factored into this quarterback battle is who could earn the trust of the team, lead us and take control and take care of the football at the same time. And it’s been really cool to watch him grow into the quarterback that he’s becoming right now.”
Thorson made his feelings of friendship toward the two guys he defeated in the position battle clear. But at the same time, he communicated that he wanted the job, he wanted to be a team leader.
“I obviously feel for the other guys, they’re my friends, but at the same time, I was determined to go,” Thorson said. “I knew that it was my time to be the quarterback, and I’m just excited to keep getting to work with these guys week in and week out.
“I don’t know if it’s about any one factor. I think it’s just about me really learning the offense this past year. Trevor helped with that, Matt and Zack helped with that. And just becoming a leader. As a freshman, you’ve got to be a leader, you’ve got to step up, and that’s something that coaches stressed to me, especially being a freshman. So I wouldn’t pinpoint one thing, but I think it’s just becoming the quarterback of this team.”