When Clayton Thorson earned Northwestern's starting quarterback job as a redshirt freshman before the 2015 season, teammates and coaches understood his maturation would require time. Becoming a vocal leader, better comprehending the offense, learning to handle in-game setbacks and even aligning his feet properly under duress were all tasks that couldn't simply be gleaned overnight through the rigors of the Big Ten grind.
So while Northwestern won 10 games that season, it was based largely on the strength of tailback Justin Jackson and the Wildcats' running game. Thorson threw more interceptions (nine) than touchdown passes (seven) and didn't find much consistent help from his receivers. As a result, Northwestern passed on only 36.9 percent of its offensive plays -- the lowest mark of offensive coordinator Mick McCall's nine-year tenure.
Wildcats receivers recognized expectations for the passing game entering 2016 were tempered at best, even as they knew internally the talent they possessed.
"We struggled to throw the ball a couple years ago, and that was definitely in people's minds that we just run the ball," Northwestern wide receiver Flynn Nagel said. "We can't throw it because we don't have the guys on the edge or whatever the thoughts might be. But I think this past year proved people wrong and showed we have those guys. And we do still have those guys in the room that can make plays on the edge. I don't think we're going to step down, that's for sure."
Northwestern, which began spring practice Tuesday in preparation for the 2017 season, will attempt to build on a surprisingly potent attack that quickly and quietly developed into one of the better passing offenses in the Big Ten. In 2015, nobody on the team caught more than 33 passes. Last year, four players caught more than 33 passes, including three who return this season. The Wildcats also passed the ball on 49.0 percent of their offensive plays, up more than 12 percent from the previous year.
The question now is: Can Northwestern do it again?
Thorson returns for his junior season, and Jackson will man the backfield as a senior. But gone is receiver Austin Carr, whose emergence became one of the best stories in the country last season. Carr, a former walk-on, led the league in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,247) and touchdown catches (12) to earn Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors and become the first player in school history to be named a Biletnikoff Award finalist. Northwestern's passing game has an opportunity to demonstrate that last year's success was no fluke, and not merely the product of one great receiver.
"People are going to think that Austin was all we had last year, kind of focusing on that," Nagel said. "Whenever we threw the ball, we were going to him. That's what people thought. So I'm sure that's in people's minds. 'Oh, they lost Carr. Can they throw the ball still?' But we'll show them."
Nagel certainly will be one of the focal points to Northwestern's passing scheme. He is the leading returning receiver after catching 40 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson added 35 catches out of the backfield, and superback Garrett Dickerson caught 34 passes. Macan Wilson, Solomon Vault and Ben Skowronek, who combined to catch 45 passes last season, are other players McCall specifically mentioned after Tuesday's practice.
Perhaps the biggest buzz surrounds a player who isn't even on campus yet. Receiver Jalen Brown will join Northwestern's program this summer as a graduate transfer from Oregon, where he appeared in 25 games over two seasons and caught 26 passes for 407 yards and four touchdowns.
"The one thing we've got to understand, and I think it'll be better for us, is we don't have to have just one guy," McCall said. "We have to have a bunch of guys grow as we go. That'll help the passing game as well to spread it around a little bit."
Of course, Thorson's growth was a big reason for last season's passing uptick and will once again be central to how well his receivers perform. He set the single-season school record with 22 touchdown passes to nine interceptions and finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (244.8). As a team, Northwestern threw the second-most passes in the league behind only Purdue.
McCall noted Thorson did a much better job of improving his film study and overall throwing mechanics, which elevated his consistency and helped open up the field. He still believes Thorson has plenty of work to do.
"One thing that'll help his production, there were times when he did a great job of throwing when pressure came at him, and he felt it in the pocket," McCall said. "You've got to make some throws when people are hitting you, too. I hope for him to get so much confidence that he just raises up and bangs the ball in there and continues to do that.
"The biggest thing is us being consistent in everything we do fundamentally. And when we do that, we'll go out and execute and we'll beat some people. Our guys pay attention to detail, and when we do that, we're pretty good."
Northwestern demonstrated its offensive prowess during a three-game winning streak last season against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. Northwestern scored 54 points against Michigan State, the Spartans' most allowed in 13 years. In that stretch, Thorson threw nine touchdowns and one interception to help Northwestern turn around its season and reach the Pinstripe Bowl, in which it defeated Pittsburgh to finish the year 7-6.
With Thorson and Jackson back, Northwestern has two of the best players in the conference at their respective positions. If the Wildcats' receivers can help fill Carr's void, Northwestern's passing offense could thrive once again -- and this time it won't come as much of a surprise.
"I know we feel like we're one of the better passing teams in the Big Ten," Vault said. "We have a great running back, quarterback, a great receiver corps, so I feel like we're one of the better offenses in the Big Ten. When we get things going, we have the potential to be. We had a great first practice. That's what I'm seeing from our offense right now."