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Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson out to prove he deserves starting job

Clayton Thorson couldn’t keep track of all his congratulatory messages after being named Northwestern’s starting quarterback last week. They came from his parents and siblings, his high school friends and college acquaintances, his current and former teammates.

But – out of all the texts, discussions and phone calls – one message stood out, from fellow redshirt freshman Blake Hance. And it’s one still firmly planted in his mind this week.

Congratulations, I’m really happy for you -- but show them they made the right choice.

“When you think about that, you really have to earn it every day,” Thorson told ESPN.com. “And that’s huge, especially me being a freshman, taking it one step at a time. I think that’s big for me.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen that focus in practice. He noted that, when Thorson misses a target, he shakes it off and walks straight back to the huddle. When he floats a ball over a safety’s head for a long completion, his ego doesn’t inflate and any celebration is short-lived.

“He’s just been pretty unflappable,” Fitzgerald said.

Thorson is calm and cool, confident and mature. He talks about his upcoming first career start against Stanford, which boasts one of the nation’s toughest defenses, as if it’s just a speed bump on the way to a bowl game. While other first-year starters, like Rutgers’ Hayden Rettig, are gearing up for FCS opponents, Thorson is preparing for a defense that allowed just 16.4 points per game last season.

And he prefers it this way.

“It’s good to play a good team off the bat,” he said. “Their institution is similar to ours. I like the situation. I like playing against the best teams, and this is one of the best teams in the country.”

If the redshirt freshman is nervous, he isn’t letting on. He continuously deflected any talk of nerves – instead saying, several times, “I’m just excited” – and he’s long removed from basking in the fact he could be the Wildcats’ first four-year starter since Brett Basanez (2002-2005).

That’s, in part, why Fitzgerald named the starter last Friday as opposed to this week. He said he wanted Thorson to get over the “Wow, I’m a starter” phase that any first-time starter goes through. But Thorson said that wasn’t a problem. He got over it last Friday.

“People are going to make a big deal about it, but you can’t listen to it,” Thorson said. “Because when you start listening to it and thinking about the situation as a whole, you’re not going to get focused, so that’s not what I did. I tried to focus on what I had to do each day to beat Stanford.”

Thorson is already viewed as a program-changer for the Wildcats. He committed to Northwestern as its highest0rated offensive recruit since ESPN started tracking recruiting in 2006. He even told ESPN.com last season his goal was to start this year.

So what lies in store for Thorson? Well, he isn’t getting ahead of himself. The humble quarterback, a dual-threat, even felt awkward discussing his personal strengths. He instead opted to answer that the way he answered most questions about the future.

“I’m just focused on Stanford,” he said. “I think you’ll see on Saturday what’ll happen.”