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.
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NorthwesternCoach: Pat Fitzgerald (6th year, 34-29)
2010 record: 7-6, 3-5 (tied for 7th); lost TicketCity Bowl to Texas Tech
All-Big Ten candidates: QB Dan Persa, slot receiver Jeremy Ebert, DE Vince Browne, S Brian Peters, LT Al Netter, PR Venric Mark.
The Wildcats will go to a bowl: If they can find a way to win at least two road games. Six of their first nine games are away from Ryan Field -- and five road games are against 2010 bowl teams. To make this happen, their senior-led defensive line needs to be stout enough to allow the inexperienced linebackers corps to use their speed to make plays.
Number to know: Northwestern boasts 21 seniors on scholarship -- a 50 percent bigger class than last year. Those seniors have combined for 295 career starts.
Final Sagarin rating the last five seasons (2010 listed first): 71st, 61st, 44th, 86th, 93rd.
-- Lindsey Willhite
Sept. 3 Boston College 11 a.m. (ESPNU)
Sept. 10 EASTERN ILLINOIS 2:30 p.m. (BTN)
Sept. 17 Army 2:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Sept. 24 OPEN
Oct. 1 Illinois 11 a.m.
Oct. 8 MICHIGAN 6 p.m. (BTN)
Oct. 15 Iowa 6 p.m. (BTN)
Oct. 22 PENN STATE 6 p.m. (BTN)
Oct. 29 Indiana 11 a.m.
Nov. 5 Nebraska TBA
Nov. 12 RICE TBA
Nov. 19 MINNESOTA TBA
Nov. 26 MICHIGAN STATE TBA
Home games in CAPS
QB *Dan Persa Sr.
RB *Mike Trumpy So.
SB *Drake Dunsmore Sr.
WR *Jeremy Ebert Sr.
WR *Demetrius Fields Jr.
WR Charles Brown Sr.
LT *Al Netter Sr.
LG *Brian Mulroe Jr.
C Brandon Vitabile r-Fr.
RG *Ben Burkett Sr.
RT *Patrick Ward Jr.
DE Tyler Scott So.
DT Niko Mafuli Sr.
DT *Jack DiNardo Sr.
DE *Vince Browne Sr.
SLB Chi Chi Ariguzo r-Fr.
MLB David Nwabuisi Jr.
WLB *Bryce McNaul Sr.
CB *Jordan Mabin Sr.
CB Jeravin Matthews Sr.
S *Brian Peters Sr.
S Ibraheim Campbell r-Fr.
K Jeff Budzien So.
P *Brandon Williams So.
KR *Venric Mark So.
PR *Venric Mark So.
* Denotes returning starter
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.