WHEATON, Ill. - Outside of the national powerhouse programs, it’s not often that a high school varsity backup is fielding BCS college football recruiting attention.
A team guy first, Clayton Thorson split snaps as a junior. He looks forward to taking all the reps next season.
Rarely ever does it come at the quarterback position.
Wheaton (Ill.) North junior signal-caller Clayton Thorson’s story is unique.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Thorson added a scholarship from N.C. State on Monday. The Wolfpack joined Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana in extending an early scholarship to a young man that only took about 35 percent of the varsity snaps from under center.
“Any other year he would have been the starter day one all the way through, wouldn’t have given it a second thought,” Wheaton North head coach Joe Wardynski said. “We just had this unique situation.”
Senior Johnny Peltz was the starting quarterback at Wheaton North. Holding an offer from North Dakota, Peltz was a team captain as a junior and earned All-State and All-Area Honorable mention last year. It’s not often when two of the better signal-callers in the state are on the same football team and Thorson came back as a junior much better than the year before. He always had the physical tools, and he significantly improved his accuracy and command of the offense.
It was a heck of predicament the coaching staff at Wheaton North was in, and while tough decisions had to be made, it was nothing anyone was complaining about.
Both kids made it easy. No thoughts of transferring and no drama whatsoever. Wardynski and the staff went with a two-quarterback system. Thorson was a good enough athlete that when he wasn’t play under center, he was lined up at wide out. While a lot of two quarterback systems fail on all levels, Wheaton North went 10-2 and advanced to the third round of the state playoffs, losing to eventual state champion Glenbard West.
“They both bought in and realized the goal is to win ball games and for the most part we did that,” Wardynski said. “If we hadn’t been winning, we would have caught a lot of more flack from parents and community members wondering why we weren’t playing the future Division- I kid or playing the senior quarterback one way or the other.
“It worked out well in that we were successful. Both kids want to play quarterback at the next level and both kids are presented with the opportunity to do that. They both got enough snaps under center and had good enough seasons film wise and statistics wise. I don’t think I would have gone back and done it any differently. It would have been hard to pull the plug on one of those kids completely and I don’t think it would have been right.”
Thorson finished the season completing 32-of-44 passes for 401 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught another 36 passes for 578 yards and four more scores. Thorson added four rushing touchdowns. Peltz finished with 1,891 yards passing and 19 touchdowns.
“Splitting time with Johnny was an awesome experience,” Thorson said. “He was one of my good friends growing up and I just had to make the most of my time under center. When I wasn’t under center, I made the most of my time at receiver and it was always fun catching balls from him and being on the field and celebrating with my teammates.”
“I have not heard anybody express concern or question what we were doing,” Wardynski said. “Film doesn’t lie and they can see on tape they’re both very talented kids. It’s interesting, I’ve had some of these Big Ten schools, they’re obviously not recruiting John Peltz, but they thought enough of him to say coach I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, he’s a good player and done good things for you.”
Thorson is from a football family. His father Chad was a linebacker/long snapper in the NFL for the New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles. His two older brothers Hunter and Luke play tight end and receiver at nearby Wheaton College. His family has been instrumental on his development as a player, as has neighbor and local legend Kent Graham who helped Thorson develop as a passer between his sophomore and junior seasons.
Back in 1986, Graham starred at Wheaton North and was named the National High School Quarterback of the Year by the National Quarterback Club. He signed with Notre Dame where he saw the field in 1987 before transferring to Ohio State for a more suitable offense for his skill set. Graham then went on to play 12 years in the NFL.
Graham works with about 10 local quarterbacks during the winter through the spring to prepare them for the next season. Seeing the raw ability Thorson has, he’s not surprised it has all come together.
“He is multidimensional in he can throw real well, he’s a good decision-maker and the way he extends plays and makes plays out of the pocket is special,” Graham said. “He has a pretty high football intellect, he manages the games pretty well and he’s continuing on a good learning curve as he gets to the next level.”
Graham couldn’t have imagined splitting time.
“It would have been tough.
“Clayton very easily on any other team in the state would have been starting on varsity. No doubt in my mind he was that good. Clayton is talented and Johnny is too. You see them out there throwing together and you could tell it was a competition and the two handled it well. Both were very unselfish.”
While Thorson is already one of the Midwest’s more sought after quarterbacks along with DeShone Kizer out of Ohio, Graham thinks it won’t be long until he’s a national recruit.
“I think he already is one of the top quarterbacks out there in his class, but I think it would obviously be that much more self-evident if he had more snaps,” Graham said. “I think he had enough snaps that the people that know what they’re looking for can see what it is. The kid is a competitor. He has a fire and wants to be great.”
Thorson went out and performed well on the summer camp circuit and college coaches said they wanted to see some varsity tape before offering. Wheaton North opened the season on Aug. 24 and on Sept. 7 Iowa became the first program to offer. Northwestern came the next day.
“It definitely wasn’t expected for it to take off the way it has,” Thorson said. “It was definitely not expected to go like this.
“All the schools that have offered have made a good impression on me. All the coaches seem like very nice guys and interested in me.”
Michigan State and Vanderbilt could be the next two schools to extend a scholarship to Thorson. Early in the process, Iowa and Penn State are the schools Thorson is most familiar with.
“Penn State, their offense is unbelievable,” Thorson said. “With Bill O’ Brien and having Matt McGloin as a walk-on and the way they developed him, the way they did that was pretty impressive. And just how they came up in the midst of all these sanctions to have an 8-4 record.”
“Greg Davis at Iowa, although they didn’t have great success this year, he’s a good offensive coordinator. If you look at Coach (Kirk) Ferentz and his past record, he’s turned it around after losing seasons.”
Thorson has already turned his attention towards next season. He looks forward to the summer and participating at the major camps. Come the fall, he knows the spotlight will be solely on him.
“I was fine splitting time with Johnny because we were such good friends and everything, but it will definitely be nice to be the quarterback the whole time.”