With training camp now officially underway up in Evanston, the mystery of who will start the season opener at quarterback for Northwestern against Stanford on September 5 can only be kept for so much longer.
The three-man competition of senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson is one the Wildcats haven't seen in a while because there's no clear successor to Trevor Siemian, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Alviti and Oliver had the chance to play at the end of last season when Siemian went down with a torn ACL. But it wasn't the best first impression for both signal callers.
In four games, Oliver had a 52 percent completion rate while throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions. In his one start in the season finale against the Fighting Illini, Oliver's adjusted total QB rating was 4.7.
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Alviti, a former four-star recruit from Park Ridge, Ill., struggled to do much better. In four games, he only completed two of four passes and ran for one yard on nine carries with a touchdown.
Thorson, another top recruit from Illinois, may have benefited the most of any in the competition simply by redshirting his first year in Evanston.
After spring practices, coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't feel like any of the three really separated themselves in the competition and is hoping that the winner of the competition naturally emerges from the group.
"We'd rather have it happen organically than to force something," Fitzgerald said. "And at this point, we're not ready and prepared to inject right now and be forceful either because all three guys have had a good summer from a leadership standpoint. I think they're all in really good shape, and now we're going to roll the ball out and let it play."
Fitzgerald and the coaches won't be completely alone in making the final decision. Senior leaders on the team will be counted on to provide their insight on who can help the Wildcats the most this year. Senior cornerback Nick VanHoose will be one of those that Fitzgerald will call upon, and VanHoose knows his opinion will weigh heavily with the coaching staff. While the defensive back says all three are great quarterbacks, there's one that has caught VanHoose's eye in practice.
"I'm a Clayton fan myself," VanHoose said. "But at the end of the day, it's going to come down to camp, who wins it out there.
"Alviti's more of a run guy. He can pass too, of course, but we see him as a run guy. You look at Oliver, you see a pro-style quarterback. Kid's got a cannon. But then you look at Clayton and he's a balance. He can pass and he can run. I didn't think the kid could run. But he can actually run a little bit."
Over the past few years, Northwestern hasn't been afraid to use a two-quarterback system to keep defenses off balance. Siemian and Kain Colter were known for their differences in style of play. Siemian was much more of a pocket passer while Colter was more of a scrambler and a threat to run on every play.
So if Thorson is a perfect blend of passing and running, it seems as if the mental challenges of playing quarterback is the only aspect holding the Wheaton native back from taking the job. Surprisingly, one player who could help Thorson with the mental side of playing quarterback could be senior superback Dan Vitale. In Mick McCall's offense, the superback and quarterback actually get the play calls and signals more in depth than other positions on offense.
"It's fair to say the superbacks and quarterbacks know the offense better than every other position group," Vitale said. "Being able to teach the two younger quarterbacks the little nitpick details of play calls or 'Hey, I'm going to turn my head around at this point' timing route, just little stuff like that goes a long way. Hopefully it can give one of them an advantage and let them take control."
Fitzgerald may not end up announcing the starter(s) until the Wildcats run out of the tunnel to face the Cardinal and that doesn't bother the players, so long as the winner(s) are ready on September 5.
"If we’re winning games, it doesn’t matter to me," senior wide receiver Christian Jones said. "I don’t have a preference as long as we win. If we’re winning games, it could be three of them out there and it doesn’t matter."