Football: Persa en route to recovery

Colin Becht

He calls in the play to the quarterbacks with a complex system of hand signals, a headset on his head. Only the orange No. 7 practice jersey indicates that Dan Persa is not an assistant coach.

Rather, he is the rehabilitating starting quarterback with the fate of Northwestern’s upcoming season resting on his shoulders ­- and on his recovering right Achilles tendon.

“It’s kind of more like a player-coach,” Persa said of his role in the Wildcats’ spring practices. “That’s what I’ve tried to do, just help (the other quarterbacks) out, give them quick tips, quick observations that I’m seeing out on the field.”

Though Persa said his rehab is ahead of schedule, his ruptured right Achilles tendon, injured in NU’s 21-17 upset of then-No. 13 Iowa, still kept the senior quarterback from participating in any of the team’s spring practices.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he has been very impressed by the initiative Persa has taken in mentoring fellow signal-callers Evan Watkins, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, especially since he knows what it’s like to miss out on spring practices due to an injury. The former linebacker recovered from a broken leg in the offseason leading up to his senior year at NU.

“(Persa) has done a great job of coaching them up,” Fitzgerald said. “When I was hurt, I did not do as good of a job as he’s doing right now, so I’m really, really proud of the job that Dan’s done to this point.”

Given Persa’s experience and success on the field – he was named to the All-Big Ten first-team by the coaches after breaking the conference’s single-season record for completion percentage last year – the Cats’ three other quarterbacks have embraced being able to pick his brain.

“We just go to Dan whenever we have a question or anything,” Siemian said. “He’s in the film room with us, watching film, breaking things down, telling us what he thinks or what he is seeing.”

While Persa may have missed out on reps this spring due to his injury, he said the experience of watching the practices from a coach’s perspective had unique benefits.

“It definitely is different, seeing things when you’re on the field versus off the field,” Persa said. “You see things a lot clearer. Things are a lot more noticeable that you might not be able to see while you’re in the heat of the moment.”

Though not practicing with the team, Persa has made huge strides in his rehab and has been running for over a month.

“The next thing I’m going to start is more like cutting and side-to-side agility work, building strength in my ankles (in the next couple of weeks),” Persa said. “Hopefully by the middle of May, end of May, I’ll be pretty much full-go.”

While Fitzgerald said there is currently no timetable for Persa’s return to full contact, he estimated that Persa would be medically cleared by the beginning of June at the latest and then would “be clear to go through our summer workouts in June and July and be full-go ready in August.”

Persa said he has no doubt that he’ll be ready in time for next season, especially in light of how his recovery and rebuilding have gone recently.

“These past couple weeks, I really think I’ve turned a corner in my rehab,” Persa said. “When I’m running, I feel a lot better. It’s still sore, but it’s not the type of sore that it was in the previous couple months when it was like sharp pains. Now it’s like muscular sore, but it comes with building muscle.”

Though Achilles tears used to be more serious, potentially career-threatening injuries, Persa may return to football the same dynamic player he was last season mainly due to improvements in the treatment and rehabilitation process of the injury.

“By getting the surgery that night (of the injury), I didn’t really allow that muscle to retract or swell in my leg,” Persa said. “After a week I got the stitches out and started moving it immediately to kind of prevent the scar tissue from building up.”

Older forms of treatment for Achilles ruptures kept the injured leg immobilized for six to eight weeks, allowing scar tissue to build up while permitting more muscle atrophy.

Given that what made Persa unique was his ability to use his legs along with his arm, it will be crucial for him to feel confident in the strength and health of his leg again.

Persa said he might be a little cautious “at first maybe, in the beginning of practice, but after I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, I don’t think there will be any hesitation. I just have to build the confidence and muscle memory back.”

As for his arm, Persa is confident his time away from football won’t affect his throwing mechanics.

“The biggest thing I didn’t want to do was I didn’t want to rush back into throwing because using your legs in throwing is very important,” Persa said. “If I rushed back in and tried to overcompensate my arm for my Achilles, I think I would mess up my motion.”

He said he has been throwing since mid-February.

When Persa does return to the field, presumably in NU’s season opener at Boston College on Sept. 3, he will begin the season with far higher expectations than awaited him last year. Fitzgerald even dropped the H-word in talking about his star quarterback.

“To have a Heisman Trophy candidate come back at quarterback for us is something that gives me a little bit of extra sleep at night,” Fitzgerald said.

Although Persa said he was impressed to hear of the early Heisman buzz around him, he is more focused on the results the Cats produce on the field.

Persa is even identifying ways to improve on his 2,581-yards passing, 519-yards rushing season, a notion that is sure to frighten defensive coordinators across the Big Ten.

“Going over the film from last year, I’ve been just kind of shoring up my footwork on some of the routes and trying to get the ball out a little quicker,” he said.

[email protected]