Calm, collected Thorson ready to go for Northwestern

 
 
Updated 9/30/2015 10:32 AM
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  • Former Wheaton North quarterback Clayton Thorson will start for Northwestern in the season opener against Stanford.

    Former Wheaton North quarterback Clayton Thorson will start for Northwestern in the season opener against Stanford. Daniel White/Daily Herald, November 2013

Reporters kept asking Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald why redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson won the three-way competition to start at quarterback.

Fitzgerald shared his thoughts Monday, but Thorson probably delivered the best answer himself when asked how he'd deal with the excitement of starting his first college game.

How will he get to sleep the night before?

"Lay my head on my pillow like everyone else does," Thorson said.

There's more to it than that, but his answer drew laughs and helped explain why he will be behind center when NU hosts Stanford on Saturday.

Thorson is calm, relaxed and confident. The Wheaton North High School grad made his case by being a leader throughout preseason camp.

"People respect him more than anyone on the team," said senior tight end Dan Vitale. "I think that's the biggest thing that factored into this quarterback battle is who could earn the trust of the team, lead us and take control.

"It's been really cool to watch him grow into the quarterback he's becoming right now."

Thorson beat out senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti to earn the starting nod. The decision wasn't a shock, since the momentum seemed to be trending in Thorson's direction since the spring.

But Fitzgerald insisted the competition was very close and he expects Oliver and Alviti to continue to push for playing time.

"It was a good competition," Thorson said. "We're friends, so it was friendly. It wasn't a blood battle."

Fitzgerald made the decision last Thursday, saying he wanted to give it a few days to sink in before the Wildcats moved into game week. He also didn't want to be scooped by anyone on social media.

"It was exciting," Thorson said. "We were all sitting in the room and he told us. Obviously, I feel for the other guys; they're my friends. But at the same time I was determined to go. I knew it was my time to be quarterback and I'm just excited to keep getting to work with these guys."

Since he redshirted last season, Thorson has yet to take a snap in college football. But he has had an unusual career progression going back to high school.

Even though he ended up being a touted recruit, Thorson didn't start a varsity game at quarterback for Wheaton North until his senior year, after he already had committed to Northwestern.

When Thorson was a junior, North had a quality senior at quarterback -- John Peltz, who went on to play at Wheaton College -- so Thorson split time at QB and started at wide receiver.

That plan went fine until Thorson suffered a broken collarbone in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs against Prospect.

He recovered to have an excellent senior season at quarterback, throwing for 2,800 yards and 29 touchdowns.

"I think (playing wide receiver) just talks to Clayton's humility and willingness to do whatever's best for the team," Fitzgerald said.

Considering how Thorson ran for 600 yards as a senior in high school, in addition to his turn as a standout receiver, it makes sense to ask what type of quarterback he will be in college.

Will the 6-foot-4 Thorson be mostly a pocket passer, like departed senior Trevor Siemian? Or will he be a dual threat, someone who can run and throw?

Fitzgerald understands Stanford doesn't have any college game film on Thorson, so he wasn't about to give a scouting report Monday.

"We put in the T-formation and we're just going to run the quarterback every play," Fitzgerald joked. "To be determined on Saturday. To be determined."

Thorson was groomed to be a quarterback most of his life. Besides being raised in a football family -- his father Chad played linebacker for the New York Giants and two older brothers played at Wheaton College -- Thorson's next-door neighbor in Wheaton was renowned QB Kent Graham, who played in college at Ohio State and spent nine years in the NFL, mostly with the Giants.

Clayton Thorson talked about how his parents, Graham and NU offensive coordinator Mick McCall have emphasized the same thing: stay calm out there.

"Bad plays are going to happen on Saturday," Thorson said. "I'm going to mess up, but you've got to go to the next play. If you're too high or too low, it doesn't matter. You've got to keep playing.

"We're going to run a lot of plays on Saturday and you've got to have a level head."

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