No official starter named, but Northwestern's QB is not a mystery

  • Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) passes against Kentucky in the first half of the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.

    Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) passes against Kentucky in the first half of the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/27/2018 7:00 PM

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald says experience has taught him to try to use every advantage he can, no matter how minuscule.

So there is no official word on who will start at quarterback for the Wildcats in their unusually early Big Ten opener at Purdue on Thursday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You get one opener," Fitzgerald said Monday in Evanston. "You'll find out at 8:06 Eastern who's going to be playing and how much and when and what we do and what plays we call."

The Boilermakers have not announced their starting quarterback, either, but their situation is very different -- Purdue has two experienced signalcallers and are expected to play both on Thursday.

Northwestern, meanwhile, has a clear No. 1 in fourth-year starter Clayton Thorson. The question is whether Thorson is fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered last Dec. 29 in the Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky.

All signs point to Thorson being ready to play, especially since this is an important conference game. If he can't go, the likely candidate to fill in is junior T.J. Green, whose father Trent played in the NFL.

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At media day in early August, Fitzgerald said Thorson was on a "pitch count" in practice because he was returning from the injury. But that didn't last long.

"I've been practicing full the past few weeks, doing everything, feeling really good," the Wheaton North High School grad said Monday. "It's nice to be back out there doing everything with my teammates again."

After redshirting his freshman year, Thorson has started every game during the past three seasons. His first year as a starter was his best performance as a runner. His second year as starter was his best as a passer. Last year, Northwestern had its best showing on the field out of the three, with 10 victories and a bowl win.

Thorson was named one of four team captains and, as he spoke to reporters inside Northwestern's new lakefront athletic facility, he thought of a couple silver linings to the knee injury.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Once it's taken away, you realize how much you love the game," he said. "I thought I didn't really need to realize that, (because) I love football so much. But I've realized how much it gives you and how much you can get from the game of football and the teammates. I've definitely had a newfound love for the game and I didn't think I needed that."

As he started slowly in the rehab process, Thorson had to relearn his throwing mechanics and believes that process has sharpened his skills.

"I'm feeling a lot better throwing the ball right now, feeling really confident," he said. "Just getting every throw more accurate, feeling better throwing off balance and things like that."

Purdue has an interesting quarterback situation, with graduate student David Blough and junior Elijah Sindelar available. Blough started five games before a broken ankle ended his season against Illinois in Week 9.

Sindelar started eight games last year and actually tore the ACL in his left knee against Northwestern. But he slapped on a brace and kept playing, eventually throwing for 396 yards and 4 touchdowns in Purdue's bowl win over Arizona. He had surgery after the bowl game.

Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm is relatively new to the Big Ten, but he's no dummy. He confirmed his team has been preparing for Thorson and will adjust if they see someone else.

Running back is less of a mystery for the Wildcats. Sophomore Jeremy Larkin has been tabbed to replace Justin Jackson, who graduated as the school's all-time leading rusher and is now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers. Northwestern's top two receivers return -- Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek.

Fitzgerald said with the relaxed redshirt rules this season, he expects anywhere from eight to 12 true freshmen to get playing time early in the season.

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