Thorson hopes to be ready at start to lift Northwestern

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              FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2017, file photo, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) looks for a receiver during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Illinois in Champaign, Ill. Thorson hopes to play in the opener at Purdue after last season ended with him getting carted off the field with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)
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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson got married in June, danced at the wedding and honeymooned in West Palm Beach.

A life-changing and busy offseason also included surgery and rehab. Now, he has his sights set on this: Thorson hopes to play in the opener at Purdue after last season ended with him getting carted off the field with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“That’s always been my goal leading up here,” he said. “Thankfully, my doctors are doing everything to get me ready to play. And I’m doing everything I can to play then.”

Thorson’s status is the biggest question mark surrounding the team after he was injured catching a pass on a trick play during the Wildcats’ victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. But it’s not the only one.

Northwestern has a huge void to fill at running back now that all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson is with the Los Angeles Chargers. But the Wildcats also have bowl victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time and hit the 10-win mark for the second time in three years at 10-3 in 2017. The season opener is Aug. 30 against Purdue.

PICK HIM

Thorson’s 27 victories are the most by a Northwestern starting quarterback, and he ranks second on the school’s all-time list in yards passing, completions and total offense. It’s not hard to see why coach Pat Fitzgerald would have high praise for him.

“I believe he’s going to be a first-round pick,” Fitzgerald said. “He better get used to (being) asked a lot of questions about a lot of things.”

But there is also the lingering question about the knee. Thorson resumed throwing in late February and worked out with his personal coach and fellow Wheaton (Ill.) North High School product Kent Graham, the former NFL player.

“We’ll wait to hear what the medical team says,” Fitzgerald said. “This isn’t going to be my decision or quite frankly even his decision. It’s going to be his decision, his family’s decision and our medical team’s decision that we’ll make as soon as we possibly can. And I absolutely promise each and every one of you, you’ll be the last to know.”

RUN WITH IT

Jackson ran for 5,440 yards and joined Wisconsin great Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players with at least 1,000 rushing in each of their four seasons.

That’s another way of saying Jeremy Larkin has some big cleats to fill. He ran for 503 yards as a freshman — a career-high 112 against Kentucky — and figures to play a big role this season.

ON TAP

The Wildcats are trying to avoid the sort of early struggles that have hampered them in recent years and position themselves to play for a Big Ten championship. They came close last season, finishing second to Wisconsin and two games back in the West division with a 7-2 mark in conference play. Had the Wildcats beaten the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium rather than lose by nine, they would have held the head-to-head tiebreaker with both teams at 8-1.

Northwestern hosts Notre Dame in November and has tough conference home games against Michigan in September and Wisconsin four weeks later. Having those marquee games at Ryan Field favors the Wildcats, as does the fact that powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State are not on the schedule. That could help clear a path — somewhat — toward a first Big Ten championship game appearance for Northwestern. It would help if the Wildcats started strong. They were 2-3 last year after opening conference play with losses to Wisconsin and Penn State and got off to a 1-3 start in 2016.

ON DEFENSE

Northwestern returns most of its top linemen and linebackers, including end Joe Graziano (nine sacks, five breakups) as well as linebackers Paddy Fisher (113 tackles — nine for loss) and Nate Hall (79 tackles — 161/2 for loss). But the Wildcats lost safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro as well as cornerback Marcus McShephard.

The Wildcats were fourth in the Big Ten against the run and last against the pass.

NEW DIGS

Northwestern got a major facilities upgrade. The school dedicated a shiny lakefront practice facility that includes among other things a supersized weight room, sports medicine center, a virtual reality room that allows quarterbacks to watch 3-D video and even an outdoor lounge. As neat as the fancy touches are, so is this. Players no longer have to shuttle a mile from campus to the facilities adjacent to Ryan Field, a big time-saver for them.