Northwestern’s focus, or at least the media’s focus, as it prepares for Boston College has been squarely on who will start at quarterback. After safely assuming Dan Persa would be ready to go once the season began, word started leaking out that he is still working through the Achilles injury that sidelined him late last year.
Now with the opening game quickly approaching, who will start at quarterback is as much a mystery as ever — even if we ignored the signs like Kain Colter saying he was playing to be the opening day starter way back on Media Day in early August. Persa and Colter have gone from Persa being the starter on the depth chart to Pat Fitzgerald saying Colter is 1b. Everyone has all but said Persa is going to start. But everyone has also all but said Persa has been cleared to play.
Nothing is clear at this point, a mere three days until kickoff. For what it is worth, Persa is still mostly doing a lot of work on his own and not getting the same amount of reps. It certainly seems like Colter is preparing and will be as ready as he can be to start the game Saturday afternoon.
No matter who is starting though, they will have to be ready and have an eye on one of the top defenders in the nation. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is NU’s biggest concern defensively entering this game. With the Eagles seemingly losing safeties left and right, Kuechly is likely the biggest — and at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, it is pretty big — impediment to either Persa or Colter having a relatively easy game.
The experienced offensive line will have its work cut out for it.
Kuechly recorded 183 tackles and three interceptions to go with 10.5 tackles for a loss last year as a sophomore. This year he is expected to be the leader of the entire team and some believe he may go down as the best defensive player in Boston College history. He is well on his way to breaking the school’s all-time tackles record if he keep his pace up.
Northwestern’s quarterbacks, offensive line and offense will have to have their eyes on Kuechly at all times. and that might be really where Persa is at a disadvantage.
Persa said his problem with his Achilles right now occurs when he is moving north-south. He is reporting no problems moving around the pocket. But it might very well be that threat to run that Persa used so effectively last season that keeps Kuechly honest and out of the backfield and away from the quarterback.
Colter has an obvious advantage right now as a runner and has shown steady improvement in his throwing during camp. Of course, he does not have nearly a full season of starting behind him.
The Eagles, for their part, have to be at least thinking about — and spending time on — preparing for both quarterbacks. In that sense, maybe the quarterback mystery is an advantage for NU as the Eagles have to prepare for different quarterbacks with two different tendencies, Colter being more of a scrambler and Persa being more of an escape artist and thrower.
Boston College certainly should not be sleeping on what Colter can do, as Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com notes in his weekly chat:
“[Mick] McCall is one of the best quarterback coaches in the Big Ten and is very underrated nationally. Colter certainly looked more polished as a passer when I saw him practice last week. He needs to make Boston College’s D respect him as a passer or it’ll be a long day for the Wildcats offense. Mobility really is critical for Northwestern’s scheme and Colter has no issues there, but I would expect some mistakes on the road in his first start (if he is the starter).”
It is right for Northwestern at this juncture of the season to put a lot of the focus on itself and cleaning up what it can do to ease either Persa or Colter into the starting role. This decision though has to also take into consideration the quality of NU’s opponent.
And that adds another layer of complexity to this decision. Is Persa going to keep Kuechly and the Eagles defense honest with his running ability like Colter can? Is Colter truly ready to start and take on a top-notch defender like Kuechly and Boston College like Persa can?
These are the added questions Fitzgerald will have to consider in making his decision at quarterback.