CHICAGO -- No team gets more out of its players than Northwestern.
No player is exempt from playing multiple positions, even the quarterbacks. Former all-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa entered the game as a special teamer when backing up Mike Kafka. This year's quarterback Kain Colter successfully split time between quarterback and wide receiver last year.
Colter, a 6-foot junior, posted nearly 500 yards in three offensive categories last year. He started Northwestern's first three games at quarterback and three others at wide receiver. Colter completed 55-of-82 passes for 673 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception. He led the Wildcats in rushing with 654 yards and eight touchdowns. He caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think all of us want to get on the field, whether thatís special teams, a different position, whatever it is," Colter said. "This has been our dream for a while. When youíre able to go out there and help the team, youíll do whatever. That really speaks to Northwestern. Weíve got some unselfish players on this team that will do whatever. They donít mind switching positions."
Northwestern stripped Colter's red-shirt with two regular-season games remaining in 2010 after Persa suffered a season-ending Achilles tear. Colter played in the Wildcats' last three games that year and rushed for 105 yards in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
"We had a first-team all-Big Ten quarterback ahead of me so he was an amazing quarterback so I had to get in where I could fit in, whether that was receiver, running back, wherever that was, trying to make some plays," Colter said.
It's Colter's team-first dedication that endears him to his teammates, offensive lineman Brian Mulroe said.
"He wants to get on the field," Mulroe said. "He wants to do whatever he can to help the team. Our coaches are going to do whatever they can to do the best job to play the best 11 guys for that specific play. Itís awesome to see him out there catching a pass because he can do everything."
But catching passes are likely in Colter's rear-view window. With Persa's graduation, Colter jumps in as Northwestern's unquestioned starting quarterback. His experience, success and talent have Wildcats Coach Pat Fitzgerald believing Colter can be the next versatile and dynamic quarterback following Persa and Mike Kafka. Fitzgerald touted Colter's experience as a positive entering this season.
"We got an opportunity to see his skill set a year ago, especially when you looked at the Nebraska game," Fitzgerald said. "I think obviously he did some very special things in that game, but also in every game. He's a very dynamic quarterback."
Colter rushed for two touchdowns and threw for an 81-yard touchdown strike to Jeremy Ebert to lift the Wildcats to a 28-25 upset of the Cornhuskers. He threw for 115 yards and rushed for 57 in the win at Nebraska.
Mulroe said Colter and Persa compare favorably as athletes and on-field effectiveness. But in personality, they carry themselves much differently, Colter said.
"I feel Dan was a little bit more serious. Iím a little bit more easy-going out there on the field," Colter said. "Iíve got a little more swag on the field, be confident. I just kind of let the game come to me. Thatís contagious to the team. Weíre out there having fun, got confidence, hopefully the team follows us. I hope thatís something I bring to them."
Colter will face some challenges on the field this year. The Wildcats are the only Big Ten team to play three BCS opponents in non-conference play. Their last five Big Ten games are against teams that played in bowls last year.
But Northwestern never has backed down against an opponent before under Fitzgerald and don't expect that to starting happening now.
"We've got a group of young men that expect bowl games and now are hoping to take the next step and expect championships," Fitzgerald said. "That's where we're at as a program."
So the pressure's on Colter to keep the program moving forward to its fifth consecutive bowl appearance. But football is just part of the total profile Colter tries to uphold. He was an academic all-Big Ten honoree and a psychology major. His goals are success in multiple areas with football clearly the most visible.
"At Northwestern we have a strict set of values, some high expectations that they expect everybody to follow," Colter said. "We really pride ourselves with what we do. We have a lot of integrity over there. We really just donít want to disappoint ourselves, our program, everything we stand for. We feel like weíve been able to build our reputation up. We definitely want to maintain that and continue to build it."
- Division: Legends
- 2011 record: 6-7, 3-5
- Returning offensive starters (5): WR Demetrius Fields, WR Christian Jones, OL Brian Mulroe, OL Brandon Vitabile, OL Pat Ward
- Returning defensive starters (6): DL Tyler Scott, DL Quentin Williams, LB Damien Proby, LB Davis Nwabuisi, LB Collin Ellis, S Ibraheim Campbell
- Key losses: WR Jeremy Ebert, TE/WR Drake Dunsmore, QB Dan Persa, CB Jordan Mabin, CB Jereavin Matthews, S Brian Peters
- Key newcomer: WR Kyle Prater
- 2011 review: Northwestern survived a five-game losing streak lasting from early September through late October to advance to its fourth straight bowl appearance. The key win was a 28-25 upset at Big Ten newcomer Nebraska. The Wildcats ended the year with a 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
- 2012 schedule: S1 at Syracuse; S8 Vanderbilt; S15 Boston College; S22 South Dakota S29 Indiana; O6 at Penn State; O13 at Minnesota; O20 Nebraska; O27 Iowa; N10 at Michigan; N17 at Michigan State; N24 Illinois
- Key stretch: Northwestern's season will be determined by both the non-conference schedule (which includes 3 BCS opponents) and the first three Big Ten games. Games against Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota are winnable and could propel the Wildcats into a ton of confidence going into home games against Nebraska and Iowa.
- Trap game: Indiana. The Wildcats' dogged† Big Ten schedule gets tough for the final five games, but overlooking pass-happy Indiana early on could prove fatal to bowl hopes.
- Glass half-full: Northwestern's offense features returning starters at receiver and O-line, the most important positions in its offense. Kain Colter started several games at QB last year.
- Glass half-empty: The Wildcats must replace a decimated secondary and QB Dan Persa was a magician at times. Opening with three straight BCS-level opponents could spell trouble.
- Quotable: "Coupled after four straight bowl games, we believe we're a program headed with a lot of positive momentum and headed in the right direction." -- Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald