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updated: 8/28/2011 12:40 PM

NU QB Dan Persa that close to full health

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  • Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is no stranger to pressure in the pocket.

      Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is no stranger to pressure in the pocket.
    Associated Press

  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, top, talks to quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles' tendon Nov. 11 against Iowa in Evanston.

      Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, top, talks to quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles' tendon Nov. 11 against Iowa in Evanston.
    Associated Press

  • Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa hopes very soon to be completely recovered from his Achilles' tendon surgery.

      Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa hopes very soon to be completely recovered from his Achilles' tendon surgery.
    Associated Press

 

The Dan Persa who threw and ran Northwestern to 7 wins in its first 10 games last season -- and earned first-team all-Big Ten honors for his yeoman efforts -- doesn't exist.

Not today, anyway.

With the surgery to repair his ruptured right Achilles' tendon just nine months past, Persa works 14 hours per day to return to last year's form. Call him PersaNotStrongEnoughYet.

"He's doing more and more each day," said sixth-year NU coach Pat Fitzgerald. "To me, that's encouraging. It's not the Achilles'. It's just the strength and the conditioning level. He's close. He's really close. I'm looking forward to see him next week."

On the depth chart released Friday afternoon, the Wildcats listed Persa as the starting quarterback for the Sept. 3 opener at Boston College.

But the chances Persa will step on BC's Alumni Stadium FieldTurf and be the same dual-threat quarterback are virtually nil.

Not that the fifth-year senior seems to mind.

"This offense can be tailored to any player," Persa said. "A dropback passer. A running quarterback. It's not essential for me to be running all over the field to make this offense go.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge of developing more as a pocket passer. Making decisions from the pocket. I think that's really going to help my development along."

Before Northwestern fans start to panic that they're not going to see the same guy, it's important to note Persa isn't the only thing that has changed in eight months' time.

While he belongs on the short list of the Big Ten's best players (Persa ranked No. 3 on ESPN.com's pre-camp Top 25 list), he's not as irreplaceable as the day he ruptured his Achilles' after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass Nov. 13 against Iowa.

Reason No. 1: Northwestern boasts 20 other seniors on its two-deep, including 14 projected starters. That's an abnormally large class for the Wildcats.

With fourth-year starters Al Netter and Ben Burkett leading the way, NU has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation.

Reason No. 2: Sophomore quarterback Kain Colter has improved so rapidly in the last eight months that he does a passable Persa imitation.

Colter doesn't have quite the arm strength or accuracy -- the latter suggestion isn't a slam considering Persa led the nation in 2010 with a 73.5 percent completion rate -- but he's even shiftier and faster than Persa.

Moreover, top returning rusher Mike Trumpy is healthy after breaking his wrist against Illinois. The 2009 Wheaton North High School graduate sat out the subsequent losses to Wisconsin and Texas Tech.

Reason No. 3: Remember how the Wildcats surrendered 163 points and 1,670 points in their 3 Persa-less losses to close out last season?

Northwestern welcomes five new defensive starters to the field this fall. At each spot, the Wildcats ratcheted up their athleticism and playmaking ability.

New cornerback Jeravin Matthews started his career as a wide receiver and a running back and spent last year as one of the Big Ten's top special-team coverage guys.

New defensive end Tyler Scott unseated senior incumbent Kevin Watt due, in part, to a monstrous spring showing.

"He scored more defensive touchdowns than anybody," said senior defensive end Vince Browne, a second-team all-Big Ten pick last year. "He was playing lights-out. Intercepting balls. Scooping up (fumbles). He was all over the place."

All of these reasons suggest Northwestern should be improved as it bids for an unprecedented fourth consecutive bowl appearance -- not to mention the school's first bowl victory since Jan. 1, 1949.

Fitzgerald refuses to set NU's sights so low ... or to adjust them based on Persa's health.

"Our expectations are much higher than anybody that may watch us or have an opinion on us," Fitzgerald told WSCR 670-AM on Friday. "Our goals are pretty crystal-clear. It's to win the Big Ten championship. In the immediate, it's to win the Legends Division."

• Follow Lindsey's football reports via Twitter @WillhiteHerald and check out his Joe Sports blog at dailyherald.com.

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