Timeliness is everything. As you read in the headline, we’ve got a Wildcat fan favorite here today. Meanwhile, said guest’s favorite WR target, WR Jeremy Ebert, just signed a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles this morning to be on their practice squad. Now, on to good (not that) ‘ol #PersaStrong. I think it is fair to say that former QB Dan Persa is in the team photo of this generation’s fan favorite players. If you judge impression by jersey sales, #7 is up there as you can see on any span of the crowd shots. I’d put it in the top four with jersey #s 51 (Fitz), 24 (Darnell), 19 (Tyrell) and of course Dan. Of all the players that I’ve seen and learned about in my 20+ years (God that sounds old) of following the team, Persa wins the award for hardest working. He was a gym rat. A workout warrior and a guy whose inner drive seemed to be locked in fifth gear. He was also tough. Perhaps, too tough (more on that in the interview).
I also think I speak for most fans when I say “what if?” What if he never ruptured his Achilles heel on that freak accident in the second he was hopping to see if indeed Demetrius Fields was catching his game-winning pass in the 2010 comeback win over Iowa. Of course, Fields did, and that moment become a plot on the timeline of the Pat Fitzgerald era. We were 7-3 with two games to go, including the infamous Wrigley Field game against Illinois the very next week. The program was coming off 9-win and 8-win seasons, and just maybe we’d be right back there again. Well, you know the rest of the story as we got blitzed in our next two games, including an extremely rare blowout game at Wisconsin and, of course the bowl loss.
Last year, with Dan healthy, or so we thought, we had the leadership and skill level to possibly have one of those Big Ten title-contending years. One problem, Dan wasn’t healthy. Furthermore, he played two-thirds of a season on what in retrospect I’ve come to find out was a torn Achilles. When you consider the health factors and review his performance from last season – an NCAA record setting career in completion percentage – you just shake your head and wonder how he did it. Now, Dan has a pretty interesting fork in the road with one path being recovery and a potential shot at the NFL and the other is a path down the real world.
I caught up with #7 yesterday by phone and I wanted to get his insights in to our two QB approach and the mentality it takes to play in this type of a gameplan. Of course, we also wanted to find out what was going on in his life, what the future holds and you know me, a trip down memory lane to find out his favorite moments. Enjoy!
LTP: What have you been up to since your recent Achilles surgery?
DP: I’m trying to rehab and I’m working a little bit. I’m trying to get healthy. I’ve been back in Bethlehem (PA – his hometown) the past six weeks. I’m heading back to Chicago in about a week.
LTP: Help me with the timeline here. When did you have the operation?
DP: I had it in the middle of August, actually August 8. I’m walking around in a boot so I can’t do too much, but it’s healing well.
LTP: I understood you were having a great camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then you reinjured yourself. Walk us through what happened.
DP: It wasn’t really that. It actually happened before the start of the season last year. Nothing happened in Tampa that changed it or caused the surgery. What happened was before the season last year I had a setback, re-tearing my Achilles, but I didn’t really know about it. I didn’t know I needed surgery on it. I played the whole season on it and then preparing for the draft and of tryouts my foot didn’t feel right. I got down to Tampa and they were kind of shaking their heads at it and I started practicing and I turned my ankle and I said “I gotta get this looked at”. It wasn’t that I needed surgery because of anything I did in Tampa.
LTP: So, are you keeping the dream alive and looking to rehab and give it another shot next year? What’s the gameplan?
DP: I want to get healthy before I make any decisions, that’s my #1 priority. If I can get to the point where I can keep playing I will, but if my foot doesn’t feel right then I’ll move on and do something else, I’m not going to try and continue with football.
LTP: Have you thought about what you would do next if football isn’t an option?
DP: Yeah. I’m working for an IT consulting firm right now, but I’m open to pretty much anything. Perhaps commercial real estate, I’m not sure, I just want to learn about as many opportunities as possible, but I’m open to try a lot of things.
LTP: I understand you watched the Vandy game on TV in your hometown (Bethlehem, PA). Describe how odd it is to be watching the ‘Cats as “one of us”, a fan, and not actually being on the field for the ‘Cats.
DP: It’s definitely different. It’s different in good and bad ways.
LTP: Are you able to watch the game as a fan or are you too busy looking at it as a quarterback , you know, trying to pick-up defenses and play the “what would you do” game?
DP: I’m definitely trying to watch as a fan, but it’s hard not to watch it like you said, as a quarterback, because I’ve been doing it my whole life.
LTP: We know Kain and Trevor are going to be getting snaps in every game. It’s quite a bit different from when you were at NU and you were the clear #1. Fitz has been calling them “1a and 1b”. From your perspective, thinking back to maybe last year in games when you knew both you and Kain would be sharing snaps, what’s it like the week of game preparation?
DP: It was a lot different in my situation, like you said, than this year’s situation. In my case, I knew I was going to be in the game the majority of the time. Kain would come in to run the ball and change things up. Practice week doesn’t really change that much because you’ve both got to be prepared. When I was playing you knew Kain needed to get the snaps to be prepared. We both prepared like we were starters, especially last year, because of the injury and me not being 100% he knew that at any given play he’d have to go in and be that guy.
LTP: Did you take Kain under your wing last year knowing that he was the heir apparent to the QB spot or was it more competitive and you both just took direction from Mick McCall?
DP: It’s not like that. I was working with all the QBs that were going to play. You try to help out all the kids that are on the team.
LTP: What types of things would Kain seek you out for advice and insights?
DP: Mostly game management type things and game time decisions. Obviously, we both knew the offense really well, but it’s the little things that make a difference. If I did something that worked, I’d share with him “hey, this guy is leaning this way and you can take advantage of that” you know, that type of detail is where I could share with him and help out. It’s not like I worked with him on how to throw the ball better or know the plays, because at this level you know how to do that.
LTP: Do you stay in touch with Kain and Trevor or are they contacting you?
DP: A little bit. I try not to contact them too much, I don’t want to bother them.
LTP: We’re 2-0 and two completely different games. One game we put up 42 points and the other, well our defense saved us. What are your thoughts on the 2012 team so far?
DP: Having a consistent defense is the difference. We’ve seen that through the years, when we’ve been able to have a “D” that is more consistent we tend to be successful and win games. No offense to the offense, but it’s a big help. Obviously the first game we scored a lot of points and the defense gave the offense a lot of opportunities to score, but the second game was tougher to watch, but the “D” played a great game. Trevor stepped up at the end of the game and got us some scores.
LTP: Tell me your perspective of these receivers. With the exception of Kyle Prater, you know them inside and out. Fitz called out the group bigtime this week and I’ve been one praising the talent level, size and speed. What’s your perspective of this group?
DP: Top to bottom it’s the most talented group I’ve ever seen, but they need to step up. There’s a difference between having a lot of talent and potential and experience and production and I think they need to close the gap on that a little bit. With Drake and Jeremy last year they had potential and experience, but they backed it up by making big plays and producing when it mattered. That’s the transition we need to make. We’ve got all the talent in the world ,but they need to make more plays to help out the quarterback. I think they’ll do that.
LTP: My perception of you is that you were the cool and calm guy in the huddle. Not a screamer or rah-rah type of guy. How would you describe Kain and Trevor?
DP: I think that’s an accurate description of me. You never want to get too high or too low as a QB. I tried to remain calm. Basically, when you’re in the moment you don’t need a lot of motivation so there’s no need to yell at people – you’re going to play hard in a Big Ten football game. Most of the energy I used was to calm people down and getting them to focus.
I believe Kain and Trevor are similar in their approach. They’re both relaxed guys, but at the same time they are willing to step up and say something when something needs to be said.
LTP: What are their respective personalities like?
DP: Kain might be a bit more quiet and Trevor has a little bit of goofball in him, but they’re both great guys.
LTP: When you say “goofy”, what do you mean?
DP: Trevor is just always having fun. He’s always smiling and he’s able to have fun with people. He’s always laughing. He was quite a bit younger than I was so I would give him a hard time because I knew he could handle it. I really enjoyed hanging out with him. They’re both just really good guys.
LTP: From your perspective of not having a high school teammate as a potential WR option tell us how big of a difference maker it is for Trevor and Rashad Lawrence, who both played together in high school, to be playing together. How much of an advantage is that in your mind?
DP: Obviously, it’s a big advantage. You play four years in high school and then potentially four years in college. There is usually a feeling out process with getting to know wide receivers and their tendencies and they don’t have to worry about that.
LTP: Take us inside the off-field activities on game week. Thursday and Friday, in particular. It’s t-minus 48 hours to game time, walk fans through what it’s like, not including practice, in the eyes of a QB.
DP: Thursday practice is real light for a QB. It’s a glorified walk-through. After that you work on the gameplan, watch tape and get mentally ready. Every unit goes out to eat, so the QBs go out with the O-line for dinner and then you relax. Friday is walk-through and meetings and then for a home game we meet at the stadium and get away to the hotel and really just try and relax. You’ll do a little gameplan, but it’s about getting in the right frame of mind. You’ll watch a movie, hang out and spend quality time with the guys you care so much about. Saturday is game day and you can pretty much know what that’s like.
LTP: Was your first drive pretty much scripted? What about other areas of the game, would you go in to games knowing certain drives would be scripted?
DP: Usually the first series you have it scripted and know pretty much you want to do. Then at halftime you make adjustments and come out and you know what you’re going to do. I think it changes though based on situations quarter to quarter and half to half though. There’s always adjustments being made.
LTP: Let’s talk about game flow. We talked about Trevor and Kain both playing in each game. When you were playing, not that it happened much, but if you knew you had the potential for limited series, is it hard mentally?
DP: Obviously Kain is the starter, but I don’t think it is scripted for each guy how much and when they’re going to play. It’s not like the coaches are saying Kain is going to play these series and Trevor will play on this series. It’s all about the coaches seeing the game flow and making adjustments. It’s tough. Trevor has done a tremendous job of leading us to two fourth quarter comebacks and right now he’s making it look easy. Trust me, what he’s doing coming in like that is not easy. You’ve got to stay loose for the entire game and have your head in it like you’re playing the entire gameand obviously he is doing a good job of that.
LTP: What about the rhythm and flow for you, personally? Did it vary from week to week or within the game? Would you say if you had a first drive that went well that you knew you’d be bringing it or was it the type of thing if you had a bad opening drive it would take you “X” amount of drives to really find your rhythm?
DP: You know in warm-ups how you’re feeling. The first couple series you really know how you’re feeling. It changes. I’ve had games where I was terrible on my first drive and it turned out to be the best game of my life and I’ve had games where I struggled and it turned out great. I didn’t get caught up in that because you have to stay in the moment on every single drive. If you get caught up in thinking “I had a great drive last drive so this will be a good one”, that mentality will get you in to trouble.
LTP: Venric Mark. Thoughts? Did you see this coming?
DP: Man, he’s playing awesome. I wish he would’ve done that last year (laughs). He’s always been really, really talented and very strong. He’s tough. Now, he’s put it all together and it’s just great to see.
LTP: Let’s focus on you. I’m going to put you on the spot here. I’m going to make you pick a game out of all of your performances where you just said “man, I feel like it’s on today!” What game would that be?
DP: The Iowa game I played pretty well, but there were stretches when I didn’t play well.
LTP: Which Iowa game?
DP: Both of them. Besides the one pick six I threw (2011), I felt I was playing well. The game where I got hurt I felt those last few drives I could really do what I wanted. Then there was the Vanderbilt game, when I started the season, that felt really good in that game. It was fun.
LTP: Favorite, specific moment. When someone says “on the field, favorite moment, what pop’s in your head?”
DP: Well, the Iowa (2010) touchdown sticks in my head for obvious reasons – both great and bad. But that’s kind of a generic answer or one that you’d expect. Personally, the first half at Penn State in 2010 was really cool for me. Having grown up there and gone to that stadium so many times as a kid and for us to come out and play so well in front of my family and so many friends, it was special. I wish we would’ve played better in the second half because we had dominated that first half.
LTP: Will we see you up in Evanston at home games this year?
DP: Absolutely. I’ll be at every home game once I get back in a week.
LTP: Well, on behalf of all the readers, we really want you to get healthy and back to 100%. We’re rooting for you and we look forward to reconnecting soon. Also, any of you business executives that might be looking for an entry level guy with a proven track record of both leadership and incredible drive, I’d say there is a pretty dynamic guy that might be interested!