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updated: 8/8/2011 10:08 PM

Back from injury, Persa impresses in the Wildcats' first practice

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  • Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa

    Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa
    Associated Press


Did Dan Persa lose any accuracy during his nearly nine months away from the practice field?

Well, the first time he lined up for 7-on-7 work in Northwestern's opening practice Monday, the fifth-year senior completed all 4 passes with tight spirals and pinpoint marksmanship.

That fell right in line with his national-best 73.5 percent completion rate last season.

"He's right on course," said sixth-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He looked great today, I thought."

Considering Persa's ruptured right Achilles' tendon is the body part that kept him off the field for so long, though, perhaps it's more important to cite some statistics on it.

"Dropping and throwing, I'd probably say 100 percent," Persa said. "But moving around and cutting is not 100 percent yet, which is fine.

"It wasn't painful, which is good. As long as I don't feel pain, I'm in the right. That's the biggest thing. I just want to stay pain-free. As soon as it gets sore, I'm just going to calm it down."

While Northwestern will practice once per day during its opening week in Evanston, Persa's schedule remains jam-packed.

His days start with rehab and meetings. Then there's a cardio workout and more meetings before practice.

"I thought he was really good," said offensive coordinator Mick McCall. "I thought he was better than maybe what I thought he'd be.

"I think the big question is, how's he going to be in 4-5 days? Because today was more of a mental thing. Getting your confidence. Getting your feet back underneath you. Playing with guys around you. He hasn't done that since Iowa Week."

While Persa's return served as the sexiest storyline for NU's opening practice, the Wildcats conducted equally intriguing business with some of their first-string combinations.

Fifth-year senior Ben Burkett, who started the last 39 games at center, lined up at right guard with the first unit while redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile handled the snaps.

Right guard is the only spot on the line where the Wildcats don't welcome back a starter. Former starting right tackle Neal Deiters also played some at right guard.

"We're trying to find our best 11 on every snap," Fitzgerald said. "We want to see how the chemistry forms and we've got a very, very competitive situation up there. We think we've got 10 guys that can play and we're going to see who the best five are.

"I know (senior left tackle Al) Netter will be out there. I promise you that."

On defense, where the Wildcats vow to upgrade their athleticism and attitude after allowing 163 points in their final three games, the first-string group featured five guys who didn't start a game last year: Fifth-year defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews, junior middle linebacker David Nwabuisi, sophomore defensive end Tyler Scott and redshirt freshman strong-side linebacker Collin Ellis.

Senior safety Brian Peters, voted the team's defensive player of the year in 2010, lost most of his voice because he screamed so often during practice.

Not because he had to tell the new guys what to do, but because he was so keyed up for the new season.

"Expectations are high," Peters said. "Everyone got better this summer. Coach Fitz just got done saying we're in great shape. Everyone's ready to rock. Full-go."