Hard-working Persa poised to disprove doubters

Christine Todd and Christine Todd

Last spring, one question perpetually hung on the lips of Northwestern football followers: “Can Mike Kafka be a passing threat for NU’s offense?”

In 2008, hopeful fans witnessed Kafka rush for a record-setting 217 yards as C.J. Bachér’s backup quarterback in the Wildcats’ 24-17 win over Minnesota. But fans also saw him rush for a mere 83 yards, complete 18 passes and get sacked four times in the Cats’ 45-25 loss to Ohio State the following Saturday. At this time last year, nobody knew what to expect from the team’s new leader. By Jan. 1, 2010, Kafka had answered all of his doubters’ questions. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder broke six of Drew Brees’ Outback Bowl records in NU’s New Year’s Day contest against Auburn, including surpassing the Super Bowl MVP’s passing record by 154 yards.

Now, there stands junior quarterback Dan Persa. Seeing time predominantly in NU’s Wildcat formation last year and as the main quarterback in two games-Penn State and Iowa-as then-backup when Kafka was injured, Persa attempted 49 rushes and 34 passes. The then-sophomore averaged 6.6 yards per pass in 2009. Fans are now asking the same question they asked about Kafka: Can Dan Persa lead a solid passing attack for the Cats?

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mick McCall didn’t directly answer that question. Instead, he said Persa will be put in position to make plays, which means he won’t find himself in a situation where he doesn’t have the ability to do what is asked of him.

McCall said that in the Cats’ offense, the quarterback must be a threat to run.

“And Dan’s a threat to run,” McCall said. “He throws the ball pretty darn good, and he’s going to get it to people. We’re going to distribute it-he does a good job of handling the football.”

Handling the football is something Persa has been itching to do since he arrived at NU. As the team’s third-string quarterback in 2008, Persa asked Fitzgerald if he could gain experience on special teams while he waited to play behind center. Fitzgerald said, “Yeah, I’m just not going to make you be the personal protector.”

“We had him on punt return and kickoff return (teams),” Fitzgerald said. “He did a good job, but he’s a much better quarterback.”

Considering the gunslinger-rich region he comes from, Fitzgerald’s assessment makes sense. Hailing from Bethlehem, Pa., Persa was born in an area that sprung forth NFL greats like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Persa surpassed their brilliance and everyone else’s in high school, becoming the first player in Pennsylvania history to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season.

Fitzgerald’s praise for the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder focused on both the gridiron talent and leadership ability when asked about his reasons for recruiting Persa.

“(I saw) an ultra-competitive guy, a leader,” Fitzgerald said. “A guy that was a winner, could do everything that our offense asks a quarterback to do from running to throwing.

Managing games. He’s played in big games, he’s won big games. He had to deal with adversity from injury. Great student. Impeccable character. We felt like Danny was the full package.”

If the Cats’ “full package” gets damaged, as has happened each of the last two seasons to Bachér and Kafka, the player waiting in the wings is 6-foot-6, 235-pound freshman Evan Watkins, who McCall said needs more playing time to be fully prepared.

“Every day is a learning experience (for Watkins),” McCall said. “We can’t play enough football for him right now. If we could play 1,000 scrimmage plays, that would be great for him.”

McCall said Watkins’ biggest advantages are that he is a big, strong player who can see over the line of scrimmage and that he has a “very, very strong arm.” McCall said the Carol Stream, Ill., native mostly needs to improve his footwork to get his shoulders in better position to make more accurate throws.

While McCall jokingly said Watkins needs plenty more scrimmage plays to be ready, Fitzgerald said both Persa and Watkins need to prepare with the mentality they will be the starting quarterback come fall.

Still, Fitzgerald has said throughout the spring that the top spot on the depth chart is “Persa’s job to lose.” And as for the question fans keep asking-whether Persa will be able to lead an efficient passing attack-Fitzgerald’s message was simple: “Tune in and see.”

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