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updated: 3/7/2011 7:49 PM

Northwestern auditions quarterbacks

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Wearing a coach's headset and an orange jersey that signifies an injured player, Dan Persa spent Northwestern's first spring practice Monday waggling coded signals to the other three quarterbacks.

Persa, who is besting the doctors' estimates as he rehabs his ruptured Achilles' tendon, will regain his starting job as soon as he's healthy.

Nobody disputes the Big Ten coaches' first-team all-league quarterback deserves that consideration.

But Northwestern's starting quarterback missed games because of injury in four of Pat Fitzgerald's first five seasons as the boss.

With that in mind, it's little wonder Fitzgerald says he's searching for a starting quarterback this spring. Even with Persa on the sidelines.

"Now is the time," Fitzgerald said. "Last year, after the Iowa game, we didn't have a chance (for a competition)."

Here are the contestants:

• Rising sophomore Kain Colter, the hit of the TicketCity Bowl with 2 rushing touchdowns, drew the initial snap of the first 7-on-7 competition Monday.

• Redshirt sophomore Evan Watkins, the Glenbard North graduate who started the three games after Persa's injury, drew the initial snap of the first 11-on-11 competition.

• Redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian, who threw for 6,144 yards and 53 TDs in high school, appeared to receive as many reps as the other two.

So who won the first two hours?

"I'm not going to take a one-day snapshot approach," Fitzgerald said. "We'll talk maybe at the end of spring, what I see as they develop. I like what all three have done.

"The guy that has made the biggest growth is Trevor. He was a little pencil-neck when he got here. He used last year to get in the weight room and really get stronger and learn the system."

Siemian's progress notwithstanding, it's probably safe to say Northwestern fans are most intrigued by the 6-foot, 190-pound Colter after he rushed for 105 yards and 2 scores in the bowl.

Colter, who shed his redshirt after Persa's injury Nov. 13 against Iowa, completed just 3 of 9 passes during his three relief appearances last season.

As it turns out, there was a good reason for his reluctant throws.

"In my first game of the season (senior year in high school), I tore my labrum and my bicep tendon in my throwing arm," Colter said. "I had surgery after the season and I've been rehabbing it since then.

"I used to feel pain when I was throwing, but now the pain is gone. Now it's just a matter of getting my shoulder strength up, my throwing strength up."

While Colter considers himself a quarterback, he's not crazy. He wants to be on the field this fall -- and offensive coordinator Mick McCall has indicated he's working on packages to take advantage of Colter's speed and skill set.

"Dan's a great quarterback and we all expect Dan to come back fully," Colter said. "So if he gets the starting job, I'm confident in my athleticism that I could jump in and play receiver or running back or wherever they need me.

"At the end of the day, I just want to play football."