Last season, Persa relied on his legs as much as his arm to keep the ball moving for the Wildcats. He had six games where he rushed for 40-plus yards, including rushing performances of 99 and 102 yards.
This season, Persa’s scampering has been curtailed because his mobility isn’t what it used to be. It hasn’t been a year since Persa underwent surgery on his right Achilles tendon and his body hasn't fully recovered.
At times, Persa has shown an elusiveness in the pocket, especially against Illinois, but he hasn’t taken off downfield as often. Due to sacks, he’s accounted for -16 yards on 28 carries this season. His longest run of the year has been seven yards. Last season, there were seven games where he had double-digit-yard runs, including a season-long 31-yard dash.
“I think it’s adapting to a new skill set,” Persa said on Monday. “I used to be able to run pretty well and now I can’t do it as much as I want to. It’s part of the growing curve.”
Persa doesn’t plan on being a permanent pocket-passer. He plans to run more when his legs allow.
“I think every game I’ve run better, feel better out there,” Persa said. “I think that’s because my leg is getting stronger. It’s still healing up.”
Northwestern’s offense hasn’t been limited by Persa’s health. The Wildcats have averaged 30 points and 421 yards of offense in Persa’s three games this season. He has thrown the ball effectively, completing 72 of 97 passes for 696 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been impressed by Persa’s return.
“When you have an injury, it’s tough to overcome between the ears first,” Fitzgerald said. “I think through the whole process he’s really handled it and managed it well. When you get out there, your body responds a little differently than the last time you played. You’re internalizing some things a little bit different. He’s handled that well.”
Fitzgerald also was proud of Persa during last week’s game against the Iowa Hawkeyes. In the first quarter, Persa threw an interception which was returned for a touchdown to put Iowa up 10-0. Persa bounced back and finished the game 31-of-40 passing for 246 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“He’s had some really special plays and been outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s had the unfortunate ebbs and flows of the valley in his play. I thought he responded really well Saturday night with a very uncharacteristic decision he made, and he came back, and I thought played really well as the game went along.
“He’s going to get better. We have him for six more guaranteed [games].”