Clayton Thorson looks to improve as Northwestern begins spring practice

In the one measurement that matters most to any quarterback, Clayton Thorson's debut season for Northwestern qualified as a smashing success.

Thorson led the Wildcats to a 10-win season as a redshirt freshman. Fairly or not, wins and losses usually are attributed to a quarterback's bottom line. Just ask Peyton Manning.

But by most objective measurements, Thorson showed as a freshman that he still needs a lot of polish. He completed just 50.8 percent of his passes last season while throwing for seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Northwestern was the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten (19.5 ppg) and had the league's least-productive passing attack.

So as Pat Fitzgerald's team opens spring practice on Tuesday, Thorson's progression as a passer will be a major focus.

"Personally, I know I have to get a lot better," Thorson said. "And the offense has to get a lot better."

This spring ball brings a new experience for him. Last year, he was part of a three-man competition for the starting job, one that lasted until August. Thorson said he feels a little less pressure this time around while enjoying a greater sense of confidence. He has taken charge of offseason workouts and film sessions. He knows teammates will listen to what he has to say and follow his example.

"I think there's a little bit different vibe from him," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He knows he’s the guy -- he's been through 13 games as the starter. So I think the evolution of his leadership is just going to take a bunch of steps forward."

Thorson says his twin goals for this spring are consistency and accuracy. He had some big moments last year, like his 126 rushing yards in a win at Nebraska. But he also suffered through some rough patches. The Outback Bowl against Tennessee, when he completed just 8 of 20 attempts for 57 yards and tossed two interceptions, was one he'd like to forget.

With an outstanding defense and clock-churning run game, Northwestern didn't have to rely on its freshman quarterback to do too much last year. But it will be hard to repeat a 10-win campaign with so little from the passing game.

"I feel confident that I don’t need to throw a ball into triple coverage or do those sorts of things, because we've got a good defense behind us," Thorson said. "At the same time, we've got to put up a little more points. I need to be consistently putting the ball on guys, going through my progression on every play."

McCall won't necessarily open things up more for Thorson in the offense, but he could trust him to execute more plays properly. It comes down to better footwork and a better understanding of the game earned through experience.

"There's a difference between knowing it in the classroom up on the board and going out and executing it on the field when a defensive end is coming off the edge trying to knock your lips off," McCall said. "That's truly a different animal."

The Wildcats lost some veterans at receiver from last season, including seniors Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Cam Dickerson, plus reliable superback Dan Vitale. Thorson has been trying to forge strong connections with the returning receivers group this winter, spending time with them in the film room and at lunch -- "just building that camaraderie and trust," he said.

"He's got to know, 'Who’s the guy I’m going to when it's 3rd-and-6 in the fourth quarter and we've got to get a first down?'" McCall said. "That's the important part of having chemistry with your players."

Thorson has also tried to gain a few extra pounds in the weight room to prepare for another season in the Big Ten. He ran for five touchdowns last year and made some of his most effective plays with his legs. His dual-threat ability is one reason he won the job as a freshman.

But to be a true dual-threat quarterback, his passing must improve. If so, the entire Wildcats offense should be much better. That's why Thorson's progression this spring will be carefully watched in Evanston.