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Northwestern preview: Jack-of-all-trades Kain Colter focusing on QB this season

KaColter is Northwestern’s top returning passer rusher receiver from last season. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Kain Colter is Northwestern’s top returning passer, rusher and receiver from last season. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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2012 NORTHWESTERN SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 at Syracuse

Sept. 8 vs. Vanderbilt

Sept. 15 vs. Boston College

Sept. 22 vs. South Dakota

Sept. 29 vs. Indiana

Oct. 6 at Penn State

Oct. 13 at Minnesota

Oct. 20 vs. Nebraska

Oct. 27 vs. Iowa

Nov. 10 at Michigan

Nov. 17 at Michigan State

Nov. 24 vs. Illinois

Updated: October 1, 2012 5:15PM



This is why Kain Colter came to Northwestern.

Several big-name coaches wanted him to play cornerback or wide receiver. He wanted to play quarterback. He’ll get his chance to prove he was right starting Saturday, when the Wildcats visit Syracuse.

‘‘I love playing quarterback,’’ Colter said. ‘‘I honestly just love making plays, playing football. Wherever I am, I’m just trying to make plays. In the quarterback role, having all eyes on you and being a leader, that’s what I live for.’’

We know Colter can run. We know he’s dynamic in space. It’s not often a team’s top returning rusher, passer and receiver wears the same set of pads.

Colter established himself as one of the most versatile players in college football last season after passing for 673 yards, rushing for 654 yards and amassing 466 yards as a receiver, but the question that has dogged him since high school hounds him still: Is he skilled enough as a passer to be as productive as he must be to give NU a chance against upper-echelon teams in the Legends Division?

‘‘The bottom line is to find a way to win,’’ Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’ll see how we go as the season progresses. I know that Kain can play quarterback. I also know he can do a lot of different things. That opens up our ability to have some fun stuff as the season goes along.’’

Offensive coordinator Mike McCall has resisted the temptation to line Colter up at running back on one play, at receiver the next and at quarterback after that. That’s how he was used at times last season, but he has played quarterback only during camp, although he knows the other positions well enough to switch at any time.

There’s no guarantee that won’t happen, either. Backup Trevor Siemian might be a better pure passer. While Fitzgerald and McCall are satisfied with how they have handled the quarterback situation thus far, they aren’t opposed to making changes if they think Colter could help the offense more as a human Swiss Army knife.

‘‘We’ve always said we’re going to put our best 11 guys on the field and play with them,’’ McCall said. ‘‘As time goes on, who knows what will happen? You could see two quarterbacks playing again very easily. We’ll just see how things unfold as the season goes on.’’

Colter is replacing Dan Persa, who finished his NU career with the highest completion percentage in NCAA history. Colter’s running ability will give the Wildcats more of an option look this season, but he still will be the trigger man in an offense that requires quarterbacks to deliver the ball to receivers all over the field.

‘‘A lot of what goes into being a quarterback is the mental part of the game, and I feel that’s something I’ve developed throughout my career,’’ Colter said. ‘‘I feel I’m a very smart quarterback that knows defenses and knows my reads. I’ve got to improve on my passing ability, but that’s something every quarterback can work on.’’

Colter can do it all, all right. He watched a tape of the shoulder surgery he had as a high school senior. The surgeon later invited him into the operating room to watch other surgeries, cementing Colter’s desire to be an orthopedic surgeon someday.

‘‘It’s just something that interested me,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve always liked shows like ‘House,’ and other doctor shows intrigued me. I never wanted to work a desk job. I want to be active, doing things. Being able to help athletes with injuries and help them get back on the field would be great.’’

FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON

1. IMPROVED SECONDARY PLAY

NU’s secondary was a major issue last season, especially early, when blown coverages and missed assignments led to big play after big play. This group might be more athletic than it was last season, but it lacks experience, which is why sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell must continue to emerge as a leader.

2. RUSH THE PASSER

The Wildcats had 17 sacks last season, which was one of the lowest totals in the FBS. The lack of consistent pressure on quarterbacks made it that much more difficult for the secondary. Whether it’s with improved individual
performances, more aggressive schemes or both, NU has to find a way to make quarterbacks feel less comfortable.

3. SOLIDIFY RIGHT SIDE OF LINE

There’s plenty of experience on the left side of the line, as guard Brian Mulroe is a third-year starter and tackle Patrick Ward had made 26
consecutive starts. The right side is far less experienced, with sophomore Jack Konopka and senior Chuck Porcelli starting for the first time.

4. KEEP WINNING CLOSE GAMES

The Wildcats are 30-11 in their last 41 games decided by seven points or fewer, including
20-10 under Pat Fitzgerald. That trend must
continue if they hope to qualify for a fifth
consecutive bowl game.

5. PRODUCTION FROM RECEIVERS

NU will miss Jeremy Ebert, but this is a deep group. There’s plenty of talent here, especially with the addition of USC transfer Kyle Prater, but others will have to be consistently productive for the offense to reach its potential.

FIVE KEY PLAYERS

KAIN COLTER

Colter proved he was one of the Big Ten’s most versatile athletes last season. Now he has to prove he is one of its best quarterbacks. He must take the next step in his development as a quarterback if the Wildcats are to be at their best.

BRIAN ARNFELT

The senior defensive tackle missed most of last season with foot injuries, but he has the ability to anchor a defensive line that desperately needs to improve and to provide valuable leadership.

VENRIC MARK

The 5-8, 180-pounder will be the starting tailback Saturday against Syracuse. Mark, who had a great camp, has big-play ability and must replace Colter as NU’s leading rusher.

JACK KONOPKA

The sophomore played superback last season. He has great feet and is the best athlete among the offensive linemen, but he never has started at right tackle before. If he can hold his own this season, he might be a three-year starter.

IBRAHEIM CAMPBELL

The sophomore safety started as a redshirt freshman last season and made plenty of rookie mistakes. He improved dramatically as the season went on and needs to pick up where he left off to establish himself as one of the top safeties in the conference.

THE FIVE BIG ONES

AT SYRACUSE | Coach Pat Fitzgerald is undefeated in season openers, but beating the Orange in the Carrier Dome will be a challenge. Quarterback Ryan Nassib is a third-year starter who broke school records for completions, pass attempts and yards last season and tied the school record for touchdowns.

AT PENN STATE | The Wildcats will play three division rivals — Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska — that are ranked no lower than 17th in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. That’s no easy assignment, which is why they need to win games against second-tier teams. Given all the turmoil, Penn State qualifies.

VS. NEBRASKA | The Huskers haven’t forgotten how NU upset them 28-25 last season in Lincoln. Expect a sea of red at Ryan Field.

VS. IOWA | The Hawkeyes are a bit of a mystery team this season after taking a step back and finishing 7-6 last season. They have questions on the defensive line and at running back.

VS. ILLINOIS | NU faithful won’t soon forget the sound of ‘‘Sweet Home Chicago’’ and ‘‘Chicago, Chicago’’ blaring from the Memorial Stadium speakers after the Illini eked out a 38-35 victory last season. It was an obvious attempt to poke fun at the Wildcats’ ‘‘Chicago’s Big Ten Team’’ marketing campaign.



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