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Better or worse: Northwestern's passing game

There are still plenty of questions left this offseason about certain players and positions in the Big Ten. But no matter the topic, the answer usually boils down to two options: Is the player or unit getting better -- or worse?

We're examining some pressing issues around the Big Ten and asking that one important question. Now, we take a look at Northwestern’s passing game.

Overview: Outside of Maryland, no Big Ten passing game struggled more last season than Northwestern's. The Wildcats ranked 119th nationally in passing yards per game (138.5), finishing dead last in the conference, and first-year starter Clayton Thorson struggled mightily.

He made some big plays with his legs – including this impressive 42-yard run against Stanford in the opener – but his arm was another story. He finished with the second-worst QBR (44.0) in the conference, was statistically the Big Ten’s worst signal-caller when facing the blitz and had the B1G’s lowest passer efficiency in the red zone. His final numbers: 150-of-295 (50.8 percent) for 1,522 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. His backups didn’t fare any better in limited time.

The Wildcats were able to overcome those shortcomings en route to a 10-win season, thanks to a solid defense and a consistent running game behind Justin Jackson. But it’s clear the passing game needs to take a big step forward if Northwestern wants to compete for a Big Ten title.

Why it could be worse this year: There’s almost nowhere to go but up, but there are a few things working against both Thorson and the passing game here.

The biggest question mark comes at receiver. Four of Northwestern’s six leading pass-catchers last season are gone, with only senior wideout Austin Carr and running back Jackson returning. That said, the corps was far from great last season anyway. Statistically, no Big Ten team was more likely drop a pass than the Wildcats.

Carr, who had 16 catches last year, looks to be Thorson’s top target in 2016. The other two projected starters right now? Marcus McShepard, who’s moving over from cornerback, and Solomon Vault, a converted running back. That doesn’t exactly do Thorson any favors. This was a below-average group last season, and it could be even worse this year.

Why it could be better this season: The passing game's struggles started with Thorson last season, and they have the potential to end with him this season. By all accounts, the redshirt sophomore boasts a lot more confidence now and has made considerable progress since an embarrassing 45-6 defeat to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Here’s how coach Pat Fitzgerald described the change in Thorson’s mindset: “A year ago, he was like, ‘Shucks, golly gee, I hope so.’ To now it’s, ‘Absolutely, let’s go, here’s the things we need to do.’ You can tell, even though he’s a redshirt freshman, he’s a wily veteran going through 13 battles of highs and lows …”

It’s not just mental improvement, either. Thorson spent extra time this offseason practicing drills handed down by quarterbacks coach Mike McCall to fine-tune both his footwork and accuracy. Last season, Thorson's feet sometimes weren’t aligned to where he wanted to throw the ball. This past spring, he made it a point to make sure they were. He’s also an avid note-taker – he has 500-plus pages on concepts and tips – and he’s taken on more of a leadership role now that he’s the starter. At this time last year, that wasn’t the case. Thorson will be a better quarterback in 2016.

Prediction: The potential here is limited thanks to a suspect receiving corps, but the passing offense should still be better with an improved quarterback and upgraded offensive line. The Wildcats won’t be a middle-of-the-road Big Ten passing offense, but they won’t finish dead last either. Expect offensive numbers that are closer to the 2013 season than 2015.