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July 2, 2013
Position breakdown: Quarterback
With the culmination of the NBA and Stanley Cup finals, we have reached the lull that hits the sporting world every summer. If regular season baseball isn't your thing, you're pretty much out of luck. But there's hope. In just nine weeks, college football will return.
In order to help pass the time, the WildcatReport staff will take an in-depth look at each position group. Using our observations from last season and spring practice, we'll aim to make the remaining weeks a little more manageable.
We'll begin at the spot that garners the most praise -- and criticism -- of any on the field: the quarterback position.
If there are people who argue the two-quarterback system doesn't work, they clearly didn't watch Northwestern in 2012. Led by Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the offense excelled. Though the Cats finished just sixth in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 395.8 yards per game, the Wildcats capitalized when it mattered. The team was third best in the Big Ten at putting points on the board with an average of 31.7 points per game.
Every time a defense seemed to get a handle on what Colter was doing in the backfield, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall would throw Siemian in the game for an added boost. And for the most part -- despite all logical notions that defensive coordinators would get wise to the fact that Colter was primarily in the game to run and Siemian would enter solely on passing downs -- the system worked.
Colter threw for 872 yards, completed 67.3 percent of his passes and tossed eight touchdown passes with just four interceptions. But it was on the ground where Colter did his real damage. He tacked on another 891 yards and 12 touchdowns for an average of 13 yards a carry.
Though Siemian only accounted for six passing touchdowns over the season, he threw for 1,312 yards and the scores came at opportune times. The backup QB tossed the game winner to Demetrius Fields to beat Syracuse and threw a key touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson at the end of the first half against Michigan. Siemian was trusted to throw the ball more frequently than Colter in 2012, and he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw just three picks.
There was a series of four games last year in which Colter was replaced by Siemian in the backfield and moved out wide into the slot. In the first game of this experiment, Colter caught nine passes for 131 yards against Indiana, and it seemed like a new offensive strategy had been developed. Over the next three games, however, Colter reeled in just seven total passes for 38 yards. Though only one of these games ended in defeat for the Wildcats, Colter didn't catch a pass for the rest of the season. But if Northwestern remains committed to the two-quarterback system, using Colter as a slot receiver could prove productive. In the spread offense, getting the best athletes on the field is a top priority. Sure, keeping Colter protected and free from harm is certainly important, but having him in the game may be worth the risk. Plus, if Colter has a hope of playing at the next level it will likely be as a receiver or special teams guy.
If there is one complaint about the Northwestern offense, it's that whoever lined up behind the center essentially telegraphed which type of play would be run. Against Indiana, Colter had just three passing attempts to his 14 rushes. Similarly, he ran the ball 14 times against Nebraska but threw just twice. In the same vein, Siemian in the shotgun largely meant the two-minute drill had arrived and the Wildcats were aiming to throw the ball downfield. To a large degree, the play call was designed this way to highlight the strengths of each quarterback, while minimizing potential turnovers.
But times may be changing in Evanston. The word around spring practice was that Colter has improved his accuracy and will provide a much more serious aerial threat come the fall. While Colter certainly proved his ability to throw on the run last season, an increased presence in the pocket would force defenses to stay honest. Likewise, Siemian's role as a runner might be extremely valuable in certain situations. Late in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl, Siemian faked a handoff to Mike Trumpy and carried the ball into the end zone to put the Cats up by two touchdowns.
If Colter and Siemian can each get to the point where defenses question which type of play is coming, even for a split second, Northwestern's offense will be much improved.
The 2013 season should largely look like a repeat of last season. Both Colter and Siemian return to Evanston ready to pick up where they left off, and there is good reason to expect similar results. Barring injury and a lack of cohesion on the offensive line, Colter's improved passing ability and another offseason for the Northwestern coaches to perfect the rotation should pave the way for another successful season.
The only concern for the Cats should be the danger of becoming stagnant. At times last season, specifically against Penn State and Nebraska, the offense was unable to accomplish much. Against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern went three-and-out on eight different occasions. Still, an added year of tweaking should help the coaching staff to fine-tune its system. Correctly timed substitutions at the QB position should help to prevent these issues.
With Colter returning for a final season and Siemian entering his junior year of eligibility, the 2013 season seems bright at the quarterback position. In fact, it makes the arrival of highly-touted, former four-star recruit Matt Alviti a secondary story. Alviti will likely redshirt, as sophomore Zack Oliver would probably fill in if both Colter and Siemian were hurt.
Should the 1a. and 1b. starters stay healthy, though, Northwestern's offense should fire on all cylinders in 2013. Come Aug. 31, Colter and Siemian will begin the second act of their quarterback duet.
All signs point to a strong performance.