Will mobile QBs spur Northwestern's offense?

March, 20, 2009
3/20/09
9:42
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The departure of a three-year starter at quarterback is never cause for celebration, but Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall could get exactly what he wants in the backfield this fall.

 
  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
  Mike Kafka is one option for the Wildcats at quarterback in 2009.

Northwestern's spread offense works best with a mobile quarterback who poses a legitimate rushing threat. After all, the roots of the Wildcats' system can be traced directly to Rich Rodriguez, who has directed dynamic offenses with mobile quarterbacks (Shaun King, Woody Dantzler, Pat White) and struggled mightily when his quarterbacks lack foot speed (Michigan's 2008 season).

McCall also enjoyed his best coaching success when he mentored mobile quarterbacks Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs at Bowling Green.

Outgoing Northwestern starter C.J. Bacher and his predecessor Brett Basanez showed decent mobility at times, but the team has lacked a true rushing threat since Zak Kustok finished his career in 2001.

McCall will have two when spring practice opens March 30.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the defense when the quarterback can run and be able to break some things open that way," McCall said. "The defense definitely has to be a lot different."

Projected starter Mike Kafka already has established himself as a rushing threat in the Big Ten. Making his first start in three years Nov. 1 against Minnesota, Kafka set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards. He followed with 83 rushing yards the next week against Ohio State.

Backup Dan Persa can move a bit, too.

As a high school senior in Bethlehem, Pa., he became the first player in state history to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rush yards in the same season. Despite serving as Northwestern's third-string quarterback last fall, Persa was used regularly on special teams, even returning a kickoff against Michigan.

Kafka and Persa should enhance a rushing attack that loses Tyrell Sutton, a four-year starter at running back, but McCall chooses to focus more on their arms than their legs.

"We've still got to find ways to move the football through the air because you cannot sit there and pound the quarterback and pound him and pound him, and expect him to throw for 65 percent completion or 70 percent completion," McCall said. "[Tim] Tebow can't even do it, and you're talking about a guy who's won a Heisman.

"We've got to be realistic about what our guys can do and how many hits they can take."

McCall is also realistic about the likelihood of injuries to quarterbacks this fall. Kafka's opportunity came last fall after Bacher hurt his hamstring trying to scramble.

Though McCall won't platoon Kafka and Persa and plans to name a definitive starter in spring ball or early in preseason camp, he expects both players to log significant field time this fall.

"Because of the way we play offense in the spread and the quarterback's got to be a threat to run and all those kinds of things, you're going to play more than one guy," he said. "That's just the way it is."

More mobile quarterbacks won't dramatically change Northwestern's offensive structure -- "A controlled passing attack that's going to sting you if they can get a chance down the field," McCall explains -- but Kafka and Persa could make a huge difference in a critical area.

Northwestern has fallen into a big-yards, little-points pattern on offense the past few years, racking up real estate but not seeing the results on the scoreboard.

The Wildcats ranked third in the Big Ten in trips to the red zone last fall (54) but scored touchdowns just 50 percent of the time. Northwestern ranked last in the league in red zone offense in 2007, scoring only 31 touchdowns in 52 trips.

"That's one thing we're going to really press on this spring," McCall said. "We were pretty efficient as far as getting there. Now we've got to score some touchdowns."

A greater running component at quarterback should improve the red zone percentage.

"We're going to try a few things, just like everyone does in the spring, some new wrinkles," McCall said. "Those guys [Kafka and Persa] will be more of a threat. Now, will they throw the ball as well as C.J. did? That's to be determined."

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