Northwestern's Persa battles to be NFL-worthy

Posted March 23, 2012 @ 4:14 p.m.
Posted By Jonah Rosenblum

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that Dan Persa tossed only one incompletion during his entire performance at Northwestern's Pro Timing Day on March 8. And that one incompletion was a somewhat clumsy drop by former Wildcats WR Andrew Brewer.

It was enough to leave Northwestern's quarterback feeling pretty good about his performance.

"It went well. I thought I ran pretty well, obviously I thought we threw the ball really well," Persa said. "When we were throwing, (the scouts) said we were looking good and just keep it up, great job."

Persa always has been able to hit all of the ducks on the pond. One of the best quarterbacks to ever call Ryan Field his home, the Bethlehem, Pa., native set an NCAA career record by completing 72.7 percent of his passes for his career.

Yet, concerns about a quarterback that was always generously listed as 6 feet tall during his time in Evanston continue to abound. Those fears intensified during a senior season that featured multiple tipped passes at the line, including several deflections which turned into interceptions. His measurements at the East-West Shrine Game didn't help matters as he came in at just 5-11 1/8, with an arm length of 30 inches and a wingspan of 72 5/8 inches.

While Drew Brees has proven that shorter quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL, the majority of professional quarterbacks tower over Persa, a fact not lost on the diminutive signalcaller.

"I know I don't have the greatest measurables," Persa said. "I'm not the tallest guy in the world but I would stress to them, keep looking at the tape. I had two pretty solid years, especially when I was healthy."

When he was healthy is the key term, particularly since Persa said that he hasn't been 100 percent since late 2010. It was then, on a November afternoon at Ryan Field, that Persa planted his foot incorrectly and ruptured his Achilles tendon after tossing the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa. The injury caused him to miss the rest of that season, the first three games of the 2011 campaign and hampered him the rest of the season as well. That's when the questions began.

"Any injuries that might happen or any setbacks, it's not going to deter him," Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He has already been through that. He has persevered through it, and again for us at Northwestern, we want quarterbacks that are winners and Dan's a winner."

Persa was never quite right in '11. As the season rolled on, it became increasingly clear that he had lost his trademark mobility. His rushing total fell from 519 yards in 2010 to 32 yards in 2011, but the statistics only told part of the tale. Plays that once resulted in bootleg completions turned into sacks, as he lost his ability to scramble out of the pocket, scampers down the middle of the field were stopped short of the line of scrimmage and suddenly his passes were getting tipped by defensive linemen with alarming frequency.

"Looking back on it, I maybe came back a little too early," Persa said. "It is what it is. I wanted to get back with my guys and I don't regret any of it."

Despite all that, he still completed 73.4 percent of his passes in 2011, with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

"This year, playing on basically one leg, I thought I was still pretty effective," Persa said. "So, I would just tell them to look at the tape, just evaluate the throws that are NFL throws that I made in college."

His efforts earned him a trip to the East-West Shrine Game, and while he didn't shine in the game itself, he made a very good impression in the week of practices leading up to the game, according to Fitzgerald.

"He had a tremendous week of practice and that's what's most important," Fitzgerald said. "Again, that was just one game. Each day down there was a game, and he's played a lot of football in college and his body of work will speak for itself."

Indeed, Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune reported one scout as saying that Persa was the best quarterback at the event, with impressive intelligence, good decision-making skills and a quick release. His ability to make short-to-midrange throws impressed the scouts in attendance, and even if he doesn't make it as a quarterback, he could be useful as a receiver, a running back or a returner, a possibility that Persa said he was open to during his pro day.

"I'll do whatever I can to help a team," Persa said. "I've played other positions before so I'll do whatever I can to make the team."

First, Persa needs to get back to full health, however.

"I'm not 100 percent yet," Persa said. "I don't have any restrictions or anything, but I'm still working back to where I was when I got injured."

Fitzgerald said he already can see progress.

"He's probably bigger, his weight is up a little bit, he's stronger," Fitzgerald said. "He looks great. I think he's pretty darn close, again closing in a little over a year now since the injury, so I think he'll definitely continue to get stronger as it progresses."

Whether he can return to the form he displayed during his junior season — when he completed 73.5 percent of his passes, with 15 passing touchdowns and nine rushing scores — remains to be seen.

Concerns aside, WR Jeremy Ebert, Persa's favorite target in 2011, said that he had no doubt whether Persa could play in the NFL.

"Absolutely, that kid can compete with the best of them," Ebert said. "I'd put him up against anyone. That kid's a stud."

Now, it's just a matter of finding scouts who share that same view, a task made somewhat more difficult by the fact that he wasn't invited to the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine.

"Any way possible," Persa said about getting into the NFL. "That's mostly my agent's job but I can just control what I can control, do well at the all-star game and do well here, and I think I did a pretty good job of that."

Perhaps one day Persa's pro-day performance will be regarded as the launch point of his NFL career, as it was for former Northwestern QB Mike Kafka, the backup QB behind Michael Vick with the Eagles.

"There was a reason why (Persa) was the all-time completion percentage leader in college football history," Fitzgerald said. "He's very accurate. I remember when Mike Kafka threw here to this day and caught a lot of people's eyes."

Fitzgerald told Persa to enjoy the process and to keep things simple.

"Enjoy the process," Persa repeated. "At the end of the day, just be yourself. You don't need every team to like you. You need one."