Northwestern's Persa could be Heisman contender -- if healthy

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The last time most people outside of Evanston, Ill., saw Dan Persa, he was rolling on the turf, cradling his right foot. Seconds after completing the game-winning touchdown pass -- a beautiful, high-arching, 20-yard lob to Demetrius Fields in the front corner of the end zone -- against Iowa last November, Persa collapsed to the ground in pain. He had ruptured his Achilles tendon. His season was over.

Now, after a nearly 10-month absence while undergoing extensive rehab, Persa is back on the national scene. And, however improbably, he's emerged as a trendy early-season Heisman candidate.

"We just feel like, looking back over time, the All-Big Ten quarterback has been in the conversation of the Heisman," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Danny's earned it."

Following a first-team All-Big Ten selection, the pieces seem to be in place for Persa to have another outstanding year. Jeremy Ebert, Fields and tight end Drake Dunsmore -- three of the Wildcats' four leading receivers last season -- return. The offensive line brings back left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett, a duo that started each of the last 39 games. Perhaps most significant, Persa renewed confidence with his teammates, gradually returning to form during fall camp in Kenosha, Wis.

"It was a little rusty for him the first couple days," said Netter. "But he's improved a lot. I think he's sitting in a good position."

His numbers are equally encouraging. Often overlooked, Persa led the FBS with a 73.5 percent completion percentage last year. His 159.0 quarterback rating ranked ninth, topping higher-profile signal callers like Terrelle Pryor, Ricky Stanzi, Brandon Weeden and Kirk Cousins. He also gained a reputation as one of that nation's most dangerous dual threats. He threw for 2,581 yards, rushed for 519 yards and collected 24 total touchdowns (15 passing, nine rushing) in 2010.

But that's in the past. The statistics and awards have become relics. The more intriguing question is this: How will Persa handle the expectations heaped upon him in his highly anticipated return from injury?

That's trickier, though his rehab process may provide some answers. Persa was tireless in recovery, progressing from range of motion to strength to speed-focused workouts well ahead of schedule. He routinely woke at 5 a.m. to rehab for an hour before meetings. He traveled more than 40 miles from camp in Kenosha to Marquette's facilities in Milwaukee to train on a daily basis. He showed toughness in the face of adversity. That bodes well for the team's chances.

But Persa has no illusions: He's still not at full health. Just days from the team's Sept. 3 opener at Boston College, Persa is listed as questionable. Fitzgerald has named sophomore quarterback Kain Colter "1b" on the depth chart, leaving doubts about Persa's mobility. It also raises another concern: If Persa can't scramble, will he be as effective as a passer?

"It's tough to tell," said Persa. "I'm close. I'm not quite there yet."

Though Persa downplays his return, Northwestern is trumpeting it. In early August, the university launched PersaStrong, an unabashed Heisman campaign. The school sent boxes of seven-pound dumbbells (Persa wears No. 7) to more than 70 national sportswriters, trying to raise awareness for what assistant AD Michael Wolf calls "pound-for-pound the strongest quarterback in the country." Though popular with media, it's a nonissue for Persa.

"If it gets more attention for Northwestern, it's doing our program a favor," he said. "If I have to carry that burden, I will."

More than anything, though, his candidacy rides on the Wildcats' winning, perhaps the most important ingredient in any Heisman campaign. Last year's four finalists -- Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, LaMichael James and Kellen Moore -- combined for just two regular season losses. With Persa in the lineup last season, Northwestern went 7-3. Without him, it went 0-3, outscored a lopsided 163-88 in consecutive losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech.

Northwestern's roster is more senior-heavy than ever, boasting a tandem of Lombardi candidates in Netter and Burkett, one of the Big Ten's top tacklers in safety Brian Peters (107 in 2010) and a likely NFL draft pick in defensive end Vince Browne, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound beast of a pass rusher who bulldozed his way to seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last year. But this is Persa's team. And the Wildcats know it.

"Dan is hands down the leader of our team," said Netter. "He's a guy you want to be behind. He's gonna find a way to win the game."

Sure, Persa is a long shot. He's buried on the preseaon Heisman list behind Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson and several others. Doubters are quick to mention that he has just one year of starting experience and that despite his PersaStrong billing he's likely on the outside looking in. Persa is a very good quarterback. He's not necessarily a legendary one.

But that's obscuring the significance. Northwestern hasn't had a player enter the Heisman lexicon since tailback Damien Anderson in 2000 or Darnell Autry in 1995 -- a year when Fitzgerald was a star Wildcat linebacker, not head coach. This season, Persa is in the discussion. That's a triumph in itself.

The road to success in the newly structured Big Ten won't be easy. A legitimate run at the most storied trophy in college football will be even harder. As with his rehab, Persa plans to take it one step at a time. "Our number one goal is to win every game," he said.

Following the completion of Northwestern's victory over Iowa, its third straight upset of the Hawkeyes, Netter sent Persa a text message. He wished him a safe surgery and a quick recovery -- a typical message from a good teammate and friend.

Persa's response was short. But it embodied everything fans need to know about a quarterback who, after falling off the radar, has a chance to make headlines far outside of Evanston.

"Yeah man. We'll get over it. But how 'bout that win?"