EVANSTON, Ill. -- Big Ten coaches found creative ways to describe former Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El’s talents from week to week, but former Northwestern coach Randy Walker may have stated it best.
“We ran into an avalanche named Antwaan,” Walker said.
Randle El was the first player in NCAA history to throw for 40 touchdowns and rush for 40 touchdowns. He was listed as a quarterback for the Hoosiers, but he was as much a running back and sometimes even a wide receiver. When he moved on to the NFL, he was labeled a wide receiver, but defenses still game-planned for him to throw or run it. His touchdown pass in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl XL victory won’t soon be forgotten.
Randle-El left his greatest impression on the college game, and it has seen few like him since his departure in 2001. There have been wide receivers who have become quarterbacks and quarterbacks who have been turned into wide receivers. But there hasn’t been someone who could be a threat to pass, run and catch the ball on any given Saturday.
Ten years later, Northwestern may possess its own soon-to-be avalanche in sophomore Kain Colter.
In last week’s win over Nebraska, Colter threw for 115 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 57 yards. Colter became the first player to accumulate 100 passing yards, 50 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in one game since ESPN began keeping such statistics in 2000.
Randle El had one such day in his career as well. In 1998 against Cincinnati, Randle El threw for 186 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown and caught one pass for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Like Randle El, Colter is designated a quarterback on Northwestern’s roster. It's the position Colter has played all his football life.
But with Northwestern already having its quarterback, senior Dan Persa, in place this season, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald began brainstorming of other ways to utilize Colter’s athleticism. He was too valuable to keep off the field and only occasionally used to fill in for Persa, who was coming off last year’s Achilles tendon injury.
Fitzgerald decided to test Colter at wide receiver. He caught one pass for 32 years as a freshman in the TicketCity Bowl, but this would be an expanded role.
In his first game at wide receiver this season, he didn’t catch a pass against Illinois. He had three receptions for 37 yards against Michigan the following week. Against Iowa, he had six receptions for 71 yards along with 44 passing yards and 76 rushing yards. Against Penn State, he had six receptions for 43 yards and his first career receiving touchdown. He caught six passes for a career-high 115 yards and added 38 rushing yards and 38 passing yards and two touchdowns against Indiana.
He has completed 52-of-78 passes for 646 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He’s rushed for a team-best 516 yards and eight touchdowns on 99 carries. He’s caught 24 passes for 336 yards and one touchdown.
Colter is having a lot of fun playing three positions.
“It’s like going out when you’re a little kid and playing a pickup game of football,” Colter said. “ ‘I’m at this position. You’re at that position.’ Just going out there and making plays. It kind of feels like that.
“I’m able to play a lot of different roles. It’s fun being out there at quarterback and then bouncing out to receiver. The defense never knows where I’m going to be. I’m just thankful for the athleticism that God’s given because I’m able to go out and there do a lot of things on the field.”
Colter’s adjustment to wide receiver has been swift. His natural athleticism, good hands and football smarts gave him a head start. With time, he’s gained knowledge of the position and feels more like a true wide receiver than before. It’s why his numbers have continued to increase.
“As the season goes on, I’ve picked up certain techniques that receivers do to help them get open,” Colter said. “At first, I was just running around, juke, make moves and get open.”
His relationship with Persa has benefited both of them. They prepare together in the quarterback room and break down film as quarterbacks, but they also discuss ways Colter may be able to expose defenses at wide receiver.
“I think the biggest thing mentally as a quarterback you’re able to read the defenses and know what Dan’s thinking when he drops back,” Colter said. “To have two quarterback minds on the field at once helps a lot.”
Fitzgerald has repeatedly said Colter is a quarterback, and it’s where Colter would prefer to be. But after seeing what Colter has been able to do the last month, they may change their minds next season.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian has played some at quarterback this season and shown a strong arm. He and Colter could share the role next season if Siemian continues to improve.
“I just want to be on the field any way I can,” Colter said. “My first choice would definitely be quarterback. I hope I can put myself in a position to take over Dan’s role next year. But Trevor is a great quarterback, and we’re going to have to compete in the offseason. Whether they want to use me similarly to how they did this year, that’s going to be up to the coaches.”
Fitzgerald said he hasn’t thought that far ahead.
“He’s doing a lot of great things, but I think it’s a little early for me to forecast,” Fitzgerald said.
Colter sees some advantage to playing wide receiver this season and in the future. Just like Randle El, it may be where he’s best suited if he’s going to take a shot at the NFL.
“I think it’s good for me, especially maybe trying to play football at the next level,” the 6-foot, 190-pound Colter said. “I’m not the biggest quarterback, don’t have the strongest arm. I feel like it opens up some doors as far as playing at the next level.”
Colter has heard the Randle El comparison before. Colter never watched Randle El in college, but he was familiar with his NFL days.
“My dad talks about him a lot, just saying how great an athlete he was, a guy that was all over the field,” Colter said. “Just being half of what Randle El was would be great. Guys like that, they just make plays. You go out there, have fun and just ball out. I would like to be put in that category one day.”
Fitzgerald wanted to wait as well to place his young do-it-all player in the same sentence as Randle El.
“I think he’s got a lot of work to do before you start throwing that comparison out to an All-Pro player,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he’s really doing a lot of special things and just working hard to improving every week. I’m really proud of him.”