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Northwestern challenge for Big Ten West hinges on Clayton Thorson’s right knee

in College by

A lot of the talk surrounding Northwestern football during this offseason has surrounded the sparkling new lakefront facility they’re building and what it might mean to the program.

The $260 million state-of-the-art building with panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyline will inevitably be a selling point for Northwestern. However, Ryan Fieldhouse still hasn’t been completed, and coach Pat Fitzgerald still is working out of an office that floods sometimes when it rains.

It will take some time — likely years — before Northwestern football feels any significant effects of finally entering the facilities arms race, but that’s of little solace for a program that is positioned to win now. The Wildcats won 10 games last year and, save for losing all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson, they’re welcoming back a great deal of the talent from that squad.

But if they’re going to take the next step and challenge for the Big Ten West, allowing for both their record and their recent commitment to running a 21st-century football program to announce their arrival to national relevance, it all hinges on the right knee of starting quarterback Clayton Thorson.

Since arriving on campus in 2014, Thorson has been the embodiment of Northwestern’s attack plan under Fitzgerald. The recruiting services loved him, with the 247Sports composite rankings listing him as the No. 188 overall player in the country, but his offer list never really screamed blue-chip recruit.

Thorson was about the type of prospect that we’ve expected Northwestern to max out on in recruiting. Over time, perhaps the new facility helps change that. But, for now, this still remains a team built largely from less heralded recruits.

Flash forward four years through and Thorson is also the shining example of why Northwestern has continued to be successful despite playing in facilities that plenty of Texas high schools would scoff at. Fitzgerald and his staff have done an exceptional job at developing the talent they acquire — it helps that their academic standards force them to recruit kids who have proven they can learn quickly.

Thorson became the starter in 2015 and has progressed effectively since. It hasn’t been perfect, and anybody who thinks a player’s development is always linear has had their theories tested by Thorson, who had an up-and-down redshirt junior season pockmarked by injury and then punctuated by a torn right ACL in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky.

However, it’s abundantly clear that Thorson is Northwestern’s best option to start in 2018. The other three scholarship quarterbacks have one career pass attempt between them.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just handing Thorson the ball and expecting everything to be okay. When he’s healthy, it’s obvious that he should be under center but when is still a moving target.

Fitzgerald claims that he’s further along in his rehab than you might expect in just five months. He did some low-impact throwing in the spring and is reportedly even squatting a little bit.

He’ll begin running soon, and that’s enough to have the program touting optimism he’ll be ready to go Week 1 against Purdue. But he hasn’t been made available to the media during his rehabilitation, and we don’t know if he or his doctors feel the same way.

Even with the ACL recovery timeline shortening thanks to advances in the field, expecting Thorson to be at full strength just eight months after the injury is a major ask. And with games against Purdue and Duke in the first two weeks, a pair of bowl teams from 2017 who profile similarly to Northwestern, Thorson won’t have the luxury of easing into things.

It’s going to be difficult to track down Wisconsin in the division if you can’t beat Purdue. It’s also going to be hard to keep up the momentum of a 10-win season in 2017 if you start 0-2 with a loss to Duke. Without Thorson, it’s certainly possible that they can avoid both, but their chances significantly improve with him.

Ryan Wooden is a full-time sports writer based in the Chicago suburbs. In addition to co-founding The Chicago Sports Column, he is a weekend editor for BetChicago and covers prep sports in DuPage County for the Daily Herald and Shaw Media. Find him away from the computer (or don't) on some body of water or some golf course somewhere.