Who will be Northwestern’s starting quarterback when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford on Sept. 5?
You’re just going to have to wait and see.
It might not take all the way until kickoff of the season opener in Evanston — though head coach Pat Fitzgerald warned that it might — but Northwestern’s three-way quarterback battle will have to be settled at some point. Until then, it’ll be the biggest topic of discussion surrounding the team.
Zack Oliver, Clayton Thorson, Matt Alviti. One of those three will be Northwestern’s starting quarterback. Just don’t expect any Cats to tell you who it’s going to be — because they don’t know.
“I would have loved to have (finding a starter) accomplished in spring ball, it just didn’t happen,” Fitzgerald said last week during the team’s media day. “Let’s say Zack had a good day, the other two guys were OK. Then the next day, the two guys stepped up. It was just kind of going back and forth as you went through the battle. We’ll see where things are at right now. They’re not going to get hit in practice anyway this fall camp, but at the same time they’re going to be put into stress and situations where it’s game-like. And how they respond to those things — and probably more important how the 10 guys around them, how they respond — will be a very large determining factor in how we go, at least to start the season.”
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Oliver might have a small advantage in the competition, though a very small one. The one who's been around the program the longest, he was pressed into action last season when injuries sidelined Trevor Siemian. Oliver got his first career start in the regular-season finale against Illinois, not faring too well with five turnover (three interceptions, two fumbles). But he did feel good about how he finished after a nightmarish first half.
“Even though I may have not had the outcome that I wanted in that Illinois game, being my first game starting, I think that I learned a ton,” Oliver said. “I came in, I turned the ball over a couple times in the first half, and I was getting down on myself, I was in my own head too much. And then I came in at halftime, I shook my head, like, ‘What the heck am I doing right now?’ So I went out there in the second half, and I felt like I really responded. Even though it was a setback for our team, I think that I took a positive from it.”
Alviti, the Maine South alum, doesn’t have the arm that Oliver does, but he can scoot. Alviti was used multiple times a season ago as a running threat. And while Fitzgerald doesn’t ideally want to do a two-quarterback system, Alviti’s running ability brings to mind Kain Colter, who formed a tandem with Siemian in 2012 and 2013 as a primarily running threat.
Then there’s Thorson, who seems to be the outside world’s pick to get the job. The Wheaton North product redshirted last season and enters this season with a lot of hype after being ranked a four-star recruit and the No. 6 dual-threat QB in the Class of 2014 by Rivals. He’s big and can do a little bit of what Oliver can do and a little bit of what Alviti can do. The Goldilocks option, if you will.
“I think I can pass the ball, and I think I can run the ball a little bit, too. That helps,” Thorson said. “But all three of us can do that. All three of us can pass and run the ball, that’s what you’ve got to do as a quarterback. And we’ve all just got to be leaders of this team and bring ourselves and our team in the right direction.”
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Mostly, these guys are concerned with competing and making the team better as a unit. Only Oliver let the competitiveness come through in his words last week — “I’d like to think that I want it more because I do” — but it mostly seemed like the competition would be a cordial one.
“Obviously it’s a competition between us three, but at the same time, it’s our quarterback room coming together. We want to put the best product out there, and that comes with us helping each other in the film room, on the field,” Thorson said. “We’ve really become better teammates because of it, and I think that’ll help our team as a whole.”
The quarterback battle might not be resolved soon, but it will be resolved by Sept. 5. It’s going to have to be.
“We’re going to base our decision on the analytical aspect of it, that’s rep-by-rep. And it’s going to be the leadership, it’s going to be all the things I’ve talked about over and over. And then ultimately, it’s going to come down to — at a minimum, in the opener — who do we believe is going to go out, move the football for us, score touchdowns and make our football team better because he’s on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not ready to make that decision yet. And I think all three have a skill set, I think all three want the job, all three are leading, all three are doing all those things. … No one’s separated themselves at this point, but I’m happy and pleased with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. It’s not three guys against each other, I think it’s three guys trying to be the best to make the team better, and to me that’s probably the hallmark of all three guys.”