Trevor Siemian needed one word to define the quarterback situation at Northwestern.
It has grown difficult to argue against his assessment. In this offense, the quarterbacks have to be ready for anything.
The backups don’t necessarily take the backseat.
“You have to be focused on the sideline,” Siemian said. “I’m not surprised when I’m going into the game or caught off guard, and I have to execute.”
Junior Kain Colter bears the bulk of duties under center, runs the option with a flourish and occasionally leaves the game. But then Siemian enters – usually in third-and-long situations – to try to throw for first downs. The cycle sometimes repeats itself.
After Siemian averaged 27.5 pass attempts during a four-week span and found mixed results, he only threw once against Iowa. With their roles consistently changing, Colter and Siemian are able to play off each other.
“We have great communication,” Siemian said. “In that sense, I think we help each other out a little bit.”
With Siemian and Colter engaged in a battle for playing time, many tend to forget the third man on the depth chart – redshirt freshman Zack Oliver.
Oliver is not expected to play again this season after completing his only pass for 13 yards in the South Dakota mismatch. Still, his presence serves a purpose in helping the team prepare.
Because he leads the scout team offense, Oliver has the chance to play against NU starters in practice. With his impressive arm, Oliver provides difficult looks for the improved Wildcats defense.
Oliver said he will be ready when his time comes. He envisioned the depth chart setting up as it did, but figured he could help the team by challenging the more experienced Siemian and Colter.
“Coming into the season, I was always trying to improve,” Oliver said. “By me getting better, it would push the other two.”
It takes a joint effort on the sidelines as well. Oliver usually shares the duties of holding up the boards – or whatever the team calls them – decorated with images. These signify particular play calls and Oliver must know the playbook as well as anyone.
He said the scout team experience also benefits him to gain chemistry with other scout team members, specifically receivers Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary.
“I’m always trying to get timing down with the young guys, who I probably will end up playing with down the road,” Oliver said.
Neither Siemian nor Colter will graduate this offseason, which allows Oliver to further develop. He has worked with Jay Hooten, director of football performance, to build arm strength and improve his footwork.
Oliver said he also tries to develop leadership skills – something that seems crucial for every quarterback.
“There are a lot of freshmen out there who are looking for someone to look up to,” Oliver said. “I try to take up that role on the scout team.”
But for the time being, most of the attention revolves around the two guys who take the field. Despite its depth and talent at quarterback and at wide receiver, NU averages only 102.5 passing yards per game in the past four contests.
Michigan will not make it any easier for NU to find big gains through the air. Fitzgerald attributed some of their defensive success to avoiding big plays.
“They’re going to force you to execute,” Fitzgerald said. “Greg Mattison is a terrific (defensive) coordinator. They do a great job of keeping the ball in front of them.”
If Colter struggles in the passing game, Siemian might enter the game and see an expanded role once again.
But you never know with this offense.
The only thing certain is that at quarterback, it takes a group effort.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline