Gunning for No. 2, March 11, 2011

Gunning for No. 2

By Andrew Scoggin

EVANSTON — A team is only as good as its backup quarterback. Northwestern fans found out just how true that old adage was in 2010, when an injury to starting quarterback Dan Persa derailed the season.

The Wildcats’ thrilling 21-17 win over Iowa last November is now better known for Persa’s torn Achilles than it is for a 10-point comeback against the 13th-ranked team in the country. It was all downhill after that game for the Wildcats, who closed out the season 0-3 by a combined score of 163-88 with a backup lining up behind the center.

Evan Watkins has taken more snaps than the other two QBs in the battle.

With Persa still on the mend, eyes this spring are focused on sophomores Evan Watkins and Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian as they battle it out for the No. 2 quarterback job.

Most teams have quarterback competitions in which the loser winds up as the backup. In Northwestern’s battle, the winner will assume the second-string role.

All three QBs have split reps with the first team offense this spring. And after three practices, coach Pat Fitzgerald says that a favorite has yet to emerge.

“They’re going to rotate through and we’ll have different combinations until maybe one guy takes it over,” Fitzgerald said. “Will that happen in the first week? I doubt it.”

The quarterbacks themselves say the same thing. Though Watkins couldn’t speak for himself (he had class after practice), neither Colter nor Siemian said any of the three had an upper hand.

“We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we’re all doing good,” Colter said. “I’m just going to leave that up to the coaches. We all want to win the job, though, no doubt.”

Who held that understudy job wasn’t so clear at the end of the 2010 season. Though Watkins started each of the last three games, he split time with Colter, who ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and even brought in a 32-yard reception in the TicketCity Bowl. But it was Watkins who got the large majority of pass attempts, going 36-of-70 for 378 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. Siemian redshirted and didn’t see any action, earning an extra year of eligibility.

And though there’s still plenty of time before the 2011 season begins, Siemian says that now’s the time for players to “win your jobs.”

Fitzgerald thinks that may be a little premature, however, as the three are “nowhere near where they need to be” in his mind.

“They’re all doing good things. They’re all doing things that are going to get us beat,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. The guys are doing a nice job.”

Speaking about the team as a whole, Fitzgerald said some players are “light years away” from understanding the playbook, and that’s certainly true for the quarterbacks, who have more to learn than anyone. Some players learn faster than others; Fitzgerald said it took him two years to fully grasp his role when he was a Wildcat linebacker. Watkins is in his second year at NU, while Colter and Siemian are still in their first.

“Some guys struggle with it because maybe in high school they were able to just run free,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of areas you try to start over and break some bad habits.”

Siemian, who got a lot stronger after winter workouts, says that a greater understanding of the game is his big goal for the spring. But Colter’s primary objective might be proving to some doubters that he’s more quarterback than athlete.

“I’ve been trying to focus on being a true quarterback, going through my reads, making the throws,” he said. “I’m looking to throw first, run second.”

Colter completed only three passes on nine attempts for 38 yards and one interception last season, but that’s understandable given that he only played in the last three games, after Persa’s injury.

Colter, who now wears No. 2 rather than No. 14, said he hasn’t run too much this spring. On Thursday, though, he scrambled a few times during practice, picking up 10 yards on one play.

Siemian connected on a few deep passes, including one 15-yarder to senior wide receiver Charles Brown and another 20-yard strike to sophomore Mike Jensen. Watkins threw with some zip on the ball, though he seemed to struggle the most of the three as a few of his passes bounced off the hands of his intended receivers.

Of course, Fitzgerald isn’t going to say who looked best.

“I’m not telling you that,” he said. “You’re going to ask me probably at the end of spring and I’m not going to have an answer. It’s going to be a day-by-day.”

(Original post — external link)


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