NU's Kafka passes off the past, looks ahead

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If the first step toward growing for the future is not dwelling on the past, Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka could do big things this fall.

Big Ten fans might remember Kafka from a Nov. 1 game at Minnesota, when he delivered one of the league's top individual performances of the season. Making his first start in more than two years, Kafka led Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of the 17th-ranked Gophers and made Big Ten history in the process.

He set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards on 27 carries (8 ypc). Kafka had runs of 53, 38, 30 and 28 as a Wildcats team playing without its starting backfield survived in the Metrodome and finished the season 9-4.

And yet, when prodded about his season-saving performance, Kafka struggles to deliver the details.

"If the offensive line wasn't out there and the receivers weren't out there, I definitely wouldn't have rushed for however many yards I rushed for," he said.

You don't remember the exact number? It's not your new cell phone area code? It's not painted all over your bedroom?

"No, I don't know," he said. "I don't really care. We won. That's all that matters to me."

Kafka still gets plenty of attention for his season-saving performance at the Hump Dome, but he's fixated on the future as Northwestern prepares to open spring drills March 30.

As three-year starter C.J. Bacher departs the program, Kafka is the overwhelming favorite to take over at quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior brings mobility to an offense that functions best with a dual-threat signal caller, but has lacked one since Zak Kustok in 2000-01.

Kafka's running skills will be on full display this fall, but he recognizes his legs won't be enough to spur the offense.

"I definitely still see myself as a throwing quarterback, because we need to throw the ball if we want to win games," Kafka said. "Just having the running dimension adds a little bit more for the defense to think about, but we've got to throw the ball."

Throwing the ball consistently has been a challenge for Kafka at Northwestern. As a redshirt freshman, he completed only 57.3 percent of his passes with five interceptions and one touchdown in four starts.

And though he completed 12 of 16 passes and threw two touchdowns in the Minnesota win, he also tossed two interceptions, one of which cornerback Traye Simmons returned for an easy touchdown. Kafka has shown decent touch on the deep ball, but he needs to become more reliable with the short and intermediate throws that are the lifeblood of Northwestern's offense.

A new set of first-team wide receivers has emphasized the importance of the offseason for Kafka, who is serving on the team's leadership council and preparing to direct the offense.

"We're throwing routes, we're getting the nature of the cadence, trying to make sure we're right in our formations, all the little things," he said. "We're definitely playing with a little chip on our shoulder this year. We've got some things we want to finish up.

"We're meshing well as a team. We've just got to keep the momentum up, keep the pedal down."