EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern fans could count on several things during the first seven years of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure: wildly entertaining, down-to-the-wire games; defenses that bent, sometimes broke but also made plays; bowl games (at least after the first two years); and standout quarterback play.
From 2007-12, the quarterback position undoubtedly was a strength for the Wildcats. C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter all were among the Big Ten's more productive and dynamic signal-callers. In 2012, Northwestern deftly managed a two-quarterback system with Colter and Trevor Siemian, winning 10 games and ending its 64-year bowl losing streak.
But the quarterback spot has backslid the past two seasons and, not surprisingly, so have the Wildcats following consecutive 5-7 campaigns. It's unfair to place most of the blame on the signal-callers, who dealt with injuries, drop-prone receivers and inconsistent lines. Yet, the Wildcats didn't have a quarterback ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 most efficient passers.
Northwestern must upgrade the most important position on the field in 2015. But first, it must find a quarterback. Spring practice has brought a wide-open competition between senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Midway through, no leader has emerged and the candidates are taking equal reps with different personnel groups, operating the base offense.
"I wish [the decision] could be right now, but it's not going to be that way," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We've got to go through this, just to see how they grow. We'll get them in some situational stuff as time goes on.
"They all have some good things they've done, some spurts they go through and then something [bad] will happen. It's more about how they respond to certain things."
Oliver's selling point is experience. He backed up Siemian and Colter the past two seasons and has 61 career pass attempts in 12 games. He's a big man (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) with a big arm, but has yet to prove himself in sustained game action.
Oliver started in place of the injured Siemian in the 2014 regular-season finale against Illinois, a game Northwestern needed to win to go bowling. Things didn't go well: Oliver committed five turnovers (three interceptions, two lost fumbles) in a 47-33 loss.
"It's not on a loop in my room over and over again, but I did watch it," Oliver said. "I will continue to watch it any time I'm feeling unsure of myself."
Wouldn't the Illinois tape make Oliver feel less sure?
"I don't want go look at my highlight tape from high school," Oliver said. "I'll go and see what I messed up on, what I did right and then use that for spring football to get better."
Oliver is the dues-paying fifth-year senior who has waited for this moment -- "I've put in my time here," he said -- but he still might not be the answer. Some expect it to be Alviti, who wears the same number as Persa (7) and boasts a similar build and skill set.
Listed at 6-foot, Alviti is the best athlete of the three and delivers escapability Northwestern typically requires of its quarterbacks but lacked last year with Siemian. Alviti also brings a strong personality to the huddle, which Northwestern might need after two lackluster seasons. A member of Northwestern's leadership council, Alviti thinks he can direct others despite his limited playing experience.
"We haven't had great leadership the last two years," Alviti said, echoing a statement he made last spring. "That all starts with our quarterbacks and guys who are leaders on offense. We need to demand more from the rest of the team. Whether it's yelling at a guy or just being able to talk to him, that all comes with building great relationships off the field."
Thorson, perhaps more than any candidate, looks like a Big Ten quarterback. He boasts good size at 6-4 and 210 pounds and has a strong arm, which he showed off at a recent practice with a perfectly placed deep ball to Miles Shuler. Thorson seems comfortable in the pocket but also has mobility, which McCall says is "huge" to push Northwestern's offense.
McCall said of Thorson and Alviti, "It'd be interesting to put them in a race."
Thorson comes from good gridiron stock. His father Chad played linebacker for the New York Giants. His brother Luke is a senior wide receiver at Division III Wheaton College, where Chad played. Another brother, Hunter, played tight end at Wheaton.
"Both were 6-7, so big targets," Clayton Thorson said of his brothers. "We would go out to the practice field a lot -- it was right across the street from us, actually -- and we'd go play there, go play with [former Hawaii and Ohio State quarterback] Taylor Graham. It was awesome."
The coaches are clamoring for clarity, but little has emerged between the patient senior, the spunky sophomore and the virtuoso freshman. Maybe it's not a bad thing.
As Northwestern tries to regain its footing both in wins and in quarterback play, it can't afford to get this decision wrong.