It was a bunch of yammering on Pat Fitzgerald’s Big Ten teleconference call. The names of most Northwestern players blend into the collective that is annually one of the Big Ten’s most flumoxing outfits.
So, Drake Dunsmore this. Jeremy Ebert that. The collective. The blend. The Wildcats.
But then Fitzgerald woke everyone up.
“To have a Heisman Trophy candidate come back at quarterback for us is something that gives me a little bit extra sleep at night,” Fitzgerald said.
Of course, the one Northwestern player everyone knows is quarterback Dan Persa, who, pound-for-pound, might be the best player in the Big Ten.
Fitzgerald will happily put the weight or the world on his QB, who accounted for 23 TDs and something like 70 percent of NU’s offense last season. Of course, he tore an Achilles against Iowa. Will that be healed? If it is, Persa could unleash 40 TDs on the Big Ten.
Persa has been shelved with the Achilles, which he injured coming down while making a leaping throw for the TD that beat Iowa. He remains ahead of rehab schedule — of course — and has targeted June 1 as his return.
When he does return, he’ll walk into a trickle of Heisman talk that was started this spring by his coach.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s a pretty prestigious award and to be mentioned with that is a high honor. At the end of the day, it’s out of my control.”
Last season Persa completed 73.5 percent of his passes, a Big Ten record. He also set an NU record with a 159.0 efficiency, ninth in the country. Persa would be the first to tell you that he’s not a one-man band.
For the Cats to make an appreciable jump in the Big Ten standings — NU tied Michigan for seventh in the conference with a 3-5 mark — they will have to develop a reliable running game and find some defensive replacements.
Mike Trumpy ended up leading the Cats with 530 rushing yards. He injured in NU’s 45-38 TicketCity Bowl defeat to Texas Tech, but the 6-1, 205-pounder had made headway at running back this spring, with Adonis Smith also in the mix.
“He’s been consistent, he’s been physical, doing all that,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re still protecting his wrist just for precautionary reasons. I’ve been very pleased with the spring he’s had.”
On defense, Fitzgerald threw out a lot of names, most notably Niko Mafuli, a 6-3, 310-pound defensive tackle who had a sack and pass deflection in the Cats’ spring game. Cornerback Jeravin Matthews could help solidify a secondary that finished 10th in the league last season.
Defensive end Tyler Scott (6-4, 255) could help take some pressure off the other end Vince Browne, a 6-5, 265-pound senior who led the Cats with seven sacks in 2010.
Mostly, Northwestern has Persa. In a lot of games last season, that was more than enough. The Achilles, nothing but a flesh wound. Persa is coming for you. Persa, Persa.
“I plan to be at the latest ready probably the end of May,” Persa said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to play a game by then. Having three or four more months is really going to be extremely helpful getting me back to where I was at my peak performance last year.”