Northwestern tackles next QB project

Spring practice at Northwestern kicks off March 3, and for the third time in the past four years, the Wildcats don't return their starting quarterback.

Recent history shows this isn't cause for panic. Mike Kafka went from a guy who threw a backward pass in an ugly loss at Indiana in 2008 to a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 who led the league in passing. Dan Persa went from a run-first, little-used backup who completed 58.8 percent of his passes in 2009 to an All-Big Ten signal caller who became the NCAA's all-time leader in completion percentage.

Northwestern is hoping for a similar one-year jump from the three signal callers who will compete for the starting job in spring ball.

"We've all been here before," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mick McCall recently told ESPN.com. "It's good that they've followed some people who have been productive. But it's college football all over again.

"You restart and away you go."

Kain Colter played a more significant role for Northwestern in 2011 than Persa did in 2009 or Kafka did in 2008. Colter started the first three games for the injured Persa and appeared in 10 games as a quarterback, leading Northwestern to a win at Nebraska. He completed 55 of 82 pass attempts for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He also was Northwestern's top rushing threat -- he recorded team-highs in carries (135), rush yards (654) and rush touchdowns (9) -- and excelled as a receiver, recording 43 receptions for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

As the numbers show, Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since implementing the spread offense in 2000.

But he also faces some obstacles to make a similar jump as his predecessors.

"No. 1 is obvious," McCall said. "I'm sure people talk about it, and Kain knows it: ball speed."

Colter tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior. The injury likely turned away Stanford, the school to which he had committed, and limited his throwing.

Although the shoulder is better now, Colter at times lacks the necessary zip on his passing, which can hamper a Northwestern offense that relies on short, quick passes and accuracy.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be the same, but it's definitely getting close," Colter said of the shoulder. "I see it in flashes. Some throws, I have a lot of velocity, and some throws, I don't. Just trying to be more consistent with it. When it's there, it really is there. I feel like timing and ball placement is more important than arm strength, just being able to make all those throws."

Despite Colter's versatility, the plan is to have him play quarterback full-time during the spring. Sophomore Trevor Siemian and redshirt freshman Zack Oliver also will compete for the starting job. Siemian and Oliver both lack Colter's explosiveness as athletes, but arm strength isn't an issue for either player.

McCall notes that Persa's ball speed wasn't great as a younger player and that he built it up by getting stronger overall in the weight room. Colter has put on 10 pounds since the end of the regular season and hopes to be in the 205 range by the fall.

"He's much stronger now than he was," McCall said. "I don't feel like that’s going to be an issue, but he's got to go out and do it, too. He's got to do a great job of anticipating breaks and taking control of the offense, not just being a playmaker but distributing the ball to our playmakers."

McCall's chief mandate to Colter and the other quarterbacks involves leadership. Persa was the first player named to Northwestern's leadership council in each of his four seasons.

"They're the changing of the guard, and who is going to step up?" McCall said. "I hope all of them step up and make the decision real, real tough. I hope all of them become leaders of our football team."

Colter is ready to answer the bell. He took losses personally in 2011 and absorbed much of the blame for the team's shortcomings.

Despite a disappointing season, he sees enough talent on the roster and is spending the winter "trying to get everybody to reach their full potential, trying to get 100 percent of the effort all the time."

Can Northwestern continue its track record of quarterback development in 2012? Given the team's issues on defense, it's critical.

"It's always going to be different," McCall said, "but we have confidence that our system works.With the guys right now who are in the room, I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be pretty darn good at the quarterback spot."