Monday, April 5, 2010
Northwestern's Persa has license to lead
By Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Dan Persa is still a novice when it comes to playing quarterback at the college level.
His career stat line shows only 34 pass attempts, 51 rushing attempts, two touchdowns, two interceptions and zero starts. It's a résumé not unlike those of other backup quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Where Persa distinguishes himself is leadership. He's the resident expert at Northwestern.
Already a threat running the ball, Dan Persa is working on fine-tuning his passing skills.
Since the moment Persa arrived in Evanston, he has prepared to lead. After the 2007 season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald formed a 10-man leadership council to give players greater ownership of the offseason program. Persa is the only player elected to the council in each of the three seasons.
Despite his place on the depth chart -- behind C.J. Bacher and Mike Kafka in 2008, and behind Kafka in 2009 -- Persa always tried to find ways to assert himself and gain confidence among others. He even saw time on special teams in 2008, returning one kickoff for 15 yards.
"I tried to get in here as much as I can to show people than I'm willing to work as hard as anyone," Persa said. "Everybody looks to you for energy, they look to you for attitude. If you're having a bad day and you're wearing your feelings on your sleeve, everybody's going to see that and then they're going to be down.
"But if they see you energized and ready to go, they're like, 'Alright, let's go.'"
Persa will get his chance to lead in the spotlight this fall as he moves into a starting role. The former Pennsylvania high school superstar takes over an offense that relied almost exclusively on Kafka's right arm last season.
Although Persa established himself as a locker-room presence years ago, he cranked things up during the winter months in preparation for his first spring practice at the helm.
"Mike Kafka was an extremely hard worker," left tackle Al Netter said, "and Dan works as hard, if not harder. This offseason, he's the first guy in the football offices, and he's the last guy to leave, every single day. His work ethic is spectacular. I look up to him, all the other guys look up to him, so he's taken this role very seriously."
Persa's rationale: "Knowing that you'll be the leader of this team, it's not just taking care of yourself any more. You've got to bring the whole team, the whole offense, along. If the offense fails, it's pretty much on you."
Since installing the spread offense before the 2000 season, Northwestern has had different types of trigger men. Brett Basanez and C.J. Bacher developed into record-setting passers, while Kafka transformed himself from a run-first quarterback into the Big Ten's passing leader last fall.
In Persa, the Wildcats might have the most natural fit for the spread since Zak Kustok, who led NU to its last Big Ten championship (2000). Persa is a true dual-threat quarterback who became the first Pennsylvania high school player to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
It's noteworthy that if Persa didn't end up at NU, he likely would have signed with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Rodriguez is arguably the biggest reason Northwestern runs the spread, as Wildcats coaches implemented the system after visiting with Rodriguez at Clemson in 1999.
"If I don't run, I think that's taking away from one of my strengths," Persa said. "But I don't see myself running 20, 25 times a game."
NU coaches know Persa can run, so they're spending more time fine-tuning his passing skills. As a smaller quarterback -- Persa is somewhat generously listed at 6-foot-1 -- he has to be precise with his footwork to help his field vision.
"I know he worked hard last summer about really getting some depth on his drop," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He did a good job with that. We're going to try and move the pocket a little bit more to help him out, but we still are who we are. We're a spread team, we're going to be in empty, we're still going to run the ball with the quarterback at times."
Persa's size hurt him a bit in the recruiting process, as some schools wanted him to play defense. But the shotgun spread offense isn't married to 6-5 quarterbacks, and so far, Persa is standing tall at Northwestern.
"He has always led," McCall said. "He was always a voice here because he still worked his fanny off in the weight room, he still worked his fanny off in workouts. But he had to be [Kafka's] right-hand man.