Persa Ready To Play

The billboards are gone and the Heisman campaign is a thing of the past, but the moment everyone has waited for this season may finally arrive this Saturday against Illinois. Dan Persa is set to return as starting quarterback for the Wildcats.

"I fully anticipate Dan [Persa] will play," Pat Fitzgerald said at his weekly press conference. "How much and all those things are too be determined based on how the week goes."

Though Northwestern is 2-1 after a surprise loss to Army two weeks ago, Persa's season has yet to begin. The senior has been forced to watch his teammates push through the out of conference schedule from the sidelines while nursing his lingering Achilles tendon injury.

"Anytime you miss time—especially as it kind of leaked into this year—it's tough," Persa said. "I try to control what I can control. I focus on my rehab and focus on coming back at the right time."

Fitzgerald hinted, however, that Persa's desire to get back on the field might be much higher than the quarterback was willing to admit.

"He's not only mentally ready, I think he's chomping at the bit to play," Fitzgerald said. "No disrespect to any other player in college football, but no one's had to go through what he's went through this offseason and he's handled it as well as anybody could."

Throughout the season, Fitzgerald has been quiet and reserved when discussing Persa's return to the field. He has been listed as day-to-day on the injury report, and his weekly preparation has not changed.

"I think I did a good job of preparing like I was going to play each game," Persa said. "That was one of the things I was going to focus on because I didn't know exactly when I was going to come back."

His preparation to start each week has kept Persa ready to rejoin the game action. As to whether he's physically and mentally prepared for game speed, Persa was confident it wouldn't be an issue.

"I think I've played enough to remember how it was," he said. "I'm sure when I get back in there it's going to be a great feeling. I'm sure I'll be excited, but I think after the first play, I'll be fine."

Persa suffered a season ending injury last year throwing a game winning touchdown pass against Iowa. After Persa's season ended, however, the entire team appeared flat, and Northwestern limped into a bowl game with embarrassing losses to Illinois and Wisconsin at the end of the season.

Because Persa's injury appeared to affect even the NU defense last season, linebacker Bryce McNaul said the defense is as excited for his return as the offense.

"Dan and our entire offense has been successful in the past controlling the ball and controlling the pace of the game," McNaul said. "That helps us out tremendously on defense when we can get a breather and give our offense more chances to score."

The 2011 offense is different than the one Persa led to seven wins in 2010 in several key ways. Redshirt-freshman Brandon Vitabile is now the starting center, with former center Ben Burkett moving over to guard.

"I've practiced a bunch with [Brandon] all through camp, we had good chemistry," Persa said. "It doesn't change that much during the game unless snaps get errant, but he's been doing a good job with that so it's not a big issue at all."

Burkett and Persa shared a laugh however, when discussing what Persa called "a rough split."

"We actually get a couple of periods in practice where we come back together, throw the ball around and have fun," Burkett said of a reunion between the two. "[Persa] cries a lot."

Laughter aside, the team is excited to have its leader back under center. Persa, however, said he won't let his excitement get the better of him.

"For the guys that know me, I'm not that type of guy," he said. "I don't get too high or too low, I just stay even keel. I know I'll be excited, but I'm not a rah-rah guy to begin with, so I'm not worried about that."

Persa can leave the rah-rah attitude to the fan base, where his return will likely provide a buzz of electricity to NU fans with high expectations. Excitement or not, his return to the playing field Saturday will be a reward for as strenuous and difficult an offseason as a football player can experience.

"As a college football player, your reward is Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "That's the reward, the opportunity to go out in the arena, compete with your teammates, and have fun playing the game that you love. He's going to get that back, and I couldn't be more happy for him."

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