Thu Mar 17 01:19pm EDT
Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Northwestern senior Dan Persa.
• Typecasting. Persa is exactly the kind of "not that big, not that fast, he just gets it done" scrapper for whom the term "gym rat" was invented. Besides a litany of all-state, all-star and player of the year honors in football, he was a four-year letterman and a sprinter on his high school track team in Bethlehem, Pa., in the wake of the final collapse of the local steel giant. Penn State and other Big Ten heavies weren't that interested. If he wasn't bound for a top college based on his grades, anyway, somebody would have had to make a movie about him.
The All-Big Ten accolades that followed his first season as a starter last fall came largely in response to his record-breaking completion percentage and efficiency as a passer (see below), but as a quarterback, Persa still qualifies as more of an "athlete" than a pocket-bound gunner. He initially committed to run a zone read-based attack under spread innovator Randy Walker — he committed to Northwestern about a week before Walker's sudden death of an apparent hear attack in 2006 — and earned a reputation as the Wildcats' resident "workout warrior" long before he made his first start as a fourth-year junior. Persa's elusiveness served him well last year, both as the team's most frequent rusher and in buying time behind one of the league's most porous lines, and his status as the best quarterback in the conference hinges on a full recovery from the season-ending Achilles tendon injury he suffered in the process of throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Iowa.
• At his best... The thing that stands out on paper is the accuracy: Persa led the nation in 2010 by completing a ridiculous 73.5 percent of his passes, a Big Ten record; he also set the school record with a 159.0 efficiency rating, ninth-best in the country. In ten starts before the injury, he connected on multiple touchdown passes in six of them, went over 300 yards passing in four and finished with at least a 140 efficiency rating — far above the national average — in eight. Kid doesn't miss.
Watching him play, though, you're more struck by the instinctive, improvisational "It" factor that makes Persa such an asset for his ability to extend plays and conjure something out of nothing. Which pretty well describes what Northwestern has without him: Nothing. By the time he was knocked out in late November, Persa had personally accounted for a little over 75 percent of the team's total offense, including 300 more yards on the ground (not including sacks) than the next-leading rusher. In his absence, the Wildcats dropped their last three by an average of three touchdowns per game.
• At his worst... The flip side of the sky-high completion percentage is that no one is ever going to confuse Dan Persa's arm for Dan Marino's: The Wildcats kept the passing game deliberately simple, safe and short. Half of Persa's completions (111 of 222) came up shy of a first down, far below the Big Ten average, and he had the league's lowest touchdown percentage. Passes that traveled more than 25 or 30 yards downfield tended to float and turn into jump balls (some of which his receivers occasionally won). He is not going to stretch a secondary vertically.
And frankly, he doesn't have time. Even with his escapability, Persa was one of the most abused quarterbacks in America last year, enduring eight sacks at the hands of Michigan State, five by Minnesota, four apiece by Penn State and Iowa and three apiece by Vanderbilt, Rice and Central Michigan. No other regular Big Ten starter was hit that often, and with Persa also occupying a central role in the actual running game, it's a pain regimen he can't be expected to endure again.
• Fun Fact. Persa was born in 1988 and clearly internalized his musical taste in the womb or shortly after — according to his official bio, five of his favorite songs on his iPod include Bulls On Parade, Stairway to Heaven, Master of Puppets, Smells Like Teen Spirit and Touch, Peel, Stand. (What, no Smashing Pumpkins?) If you're interested in advancing your interest in hard yet accessible rock into the 21st Century, Dan, I recommend the Black Angels.
• What to expect in the fall. Persa is sitting out the spring to continue rehab on his Achilles, allegedly out of a greater sense of caution than necessity. At full speed, behind a more seasoned line and with favorite target Jeremy Ebert en tow, Persa's creativity can lift the 'Cats back over the seven-win hump and into another bowl game. Terrelle Pryor will be on the bench for the first month of the season; Denard Robinson will be transitioning to an offense that may or may not suit his talents as well as the one he commandeered in 2010. If Persa doesn't start the season as an All-Big Ten pick, for the injury or any other reason, he's probably still the odds-on favorite to wind up there.
If not, he could find himself a target in the pocket who lacks both the arm to make defenses respect him deep and now the wheels that they did respect. Let's hope not: Minus the creativity Persa flashed last year, Northwestern will be a much less fun team to watch, and an even less fun one to play for.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.