Role Playing

Pat Fitzgerald has a great problem on his hands. As his Northwestern Wildcats cap off the spring season, Fitzgerald is set to return his all-conference and "Heisman Trophy candidate" quarterback, with four viable options as a backup. Each quarterback brings their own skill set, leaving the head coach pondering ideas of how to utilize his depth.

It seems like a fairly simple statement to make, but any competitor will tell you, they want to play. No athlete is okay with just settling and riding the bench—they want to play. In football, there is only one guy who gets to receive the snap from the center. The backups are stuck on the sidelines with a fancy brand hat and a clipboard. But simple competitiveness is what makes a backup quarterback work harder to be on the field.

This fall, Dan Persa will be back to his role as starting quarterback for Northwestern, while Kain Colter, Evan Watkins, Trevor Siemian, and incoming freshman-to-be Zack Oliver, are hoping to trade in their purple Adidas hat for the chance to strap on a helmet.

As long as Persa makes his expected full recovery, the starting spot at quarterback will be occupied. This leaves the four reserve quarterbacks searching for any type of way to get on the field.

"When (Persa) comes back, we're not going to fool ourselves—he's going to be the guy," said Colter I'm a football player, I want to be out on the field somewhere helping the team. If that's a running back, receiver, anywhere, I'm going to go out and try to make some plays."

When Persa went down during the Wildcats' November win against Iowa, Evan Watkins stepped in as the starter, with the true freshman Colter taking on a part-time role.

In Watkins' seven games, he completed 51.4% of his passes, but had just two touchdowns to his five interceptions. During the spring, the sophomore made steady improvements in his throwing abilities, while admittedly growing more confident in the playbook and in his own abilities.

In the final three games of his first season (bowl game included), Colter stepped in for an all-purpose role with the Northwestern offense. He threw the ball just nine times, but made his mark in the TicketCity Bowl with 105 yards on the ground, and a 32-yard reception.

As each quarterback entered the spring, they knew in the back of their mind that Dan Persa would be healthy for the start of the fall. But even with the starting spot at quarterback taken, Pat Fitzgerald didn't rule out the idea of getting creative with what he has.

"I think if you look at our past history, it's safe to assume so," Fitzgerald said.

So what does Fitzgerald mean exactly? In the TicketCity Bowl, Kain Colter was a success with the "Wildcat" offense. Given his great speed and agility, one would be safe to assume that the "Wildcat" package will be back in 2011, with Colter calling the shots.

In addition, the ‘Cats showed a form of the "Pistol" offense during the spring game, with Colter in charge. This formation featured Colter standing a few yards behind the center, with a running back lined up deep behind in the backfield. This is another possibility for Colter to receive some playing time.

Another possibility is for Colter to work in with the passing game as a wide receiver. When asked about the idea, Fitzgerald quick dismissed it, saying, "He's a quarterback, number one, he's a quarterback."

However, after that comment, the head coach left the door open to be creative. Look at Jeremy Ebert for example. The 2010 First-Team All-Big Ten selection was a two-time all-conference selection in high school as a quarterback. It was at Northwestern that he became a wide receiver. Another example is Andrew Brewer, who made a smooth transition from quarterback to receiver.

A move to the outside would be a more difficult transition for Colter, who has never played anything aside from quarterback. But as Fitzgerald said, look at the past history.

As for Evan Watkins, Trevor Siemian, and the incoming Zack Oliver, their options are likely limited to being a passer. As for now, they're stuck waiting for the picture to become clearer.

Fitzgerald refused to name a backup to Persa, saying with a smile that there are "three guys" (four when Zack Oliver arrives) as backups to Persa. But as Evan Watkins knows better than anyone else, there's always that potential where one play can make a backup the new starter.

"My job is to prepare myself the best I can," Watkins said. "If last year happens and I need to go out there again, I'll be ready."

The depth chart will take better shape at quarterback, and every other position, when the Wildcats open up the season at Camp Kenosha. The incoming freshmen will join the rest of the team, and begin their preparations for the first game against Boston College.

In the meantime, the Northwestern coaches have something to ponder at the quarterback position—how will they utilize their depth?

That doesn't matter much to each quarterback. They just want to play.

"I think when the fall comes around, it's going to be a lot more clear who's going to play," Colter said. "I just want to be on the field somewhere."

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