Sept. 24, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
No one quality transforms an anonymous thoroughbred into a championship racehorse. That is an adage as old as betting itself. Similarly, no one factor has transformed the 'Cat passing attack into the efficient machine it has been over this season's first three games. But one of them is surely the symbiotic relationship quarterback Dan Persa enjoys with his receivers.
It is a bond that is crucial to their success and much of it was forged in their work together during the hot months of summer. They were laboring then far from public view and even now, as they await Central Michigan's Saturday visit to Ryan Field, they nurture that bond unseen by other eyes. They do that by gathering together daily to watch film and to pick each other's mind.
This is a voluntary get-together of all skilled-position players, no coaches present, and leading them here is Persa, who controls the projector. On Sunday they review the tape of the previous day's game and, in the days that follow, they do the same of the opponent next up on their schedule. "Just to slow down the learning curve when we get on the field," explains Persa.
He is not the only one who speaks in these sessions. Everyone has the opportunity to shout out. But the format is commonly Socratic, with questions being asked to stimulate thinking and illuminate ideas. "What would you do if this guy's takes outside leverage instead of inside leverage?"
"What would you do if that guy blitzes?"
"What would you do if this corner presses?"
"What would you do if that corner drops into coverage?"
Those are the kinds of queries tossed around and, through the answers, both the thrower and the receiver come to understand each other better. "We want to get a feel of how the defense is going to play us," says the wide receiver Sidney Stewart. "But not only are we trying to get a feel for them, we're also trying to develop a chemistry, a chemistry that may not have occurred in practice. Maybe he (Persa) wants me to run my route in a different way. We talk about those kinds of things. Just little things that may help us win a game."
"Everyone chips in, chimes in," adds Demetrius Fields
, another wide receiver. "It's good to have that feedback and conversation so we are all on the same page."
So that, at the end of the day, when they see a coverage, Persa knows what they're thinking and they know what he's thinking?
"That's the idea. That's the idea behind it," concludes Stewart. "It doesn't always happen like that. But when we come out of a game with a high completion rate, it's definitely a testament to that."
The 'Cats enter Saturday's game surrendering an average of just 12.3 points-per-game, eighth best in the country. "I think we're a lot more mature," defensive tackle Corbin Bryant says when asked the reasons behind his unit's strong performances. "A lot of guys out there now really know what they're doing. We didn't have to insert a lot of new guys into the system this year. A lot of guys are playing a lot smarter and that allows us to make a lot more plays."
"Every year we have the attitude that we just want to fight a little bit more," adds linebacker Quentin Davie. "Last year we were fighters and we never gave up. This year, we took that up a step."
Their defense has shone even though its coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, has yet to go deep into his bag of tricks. Davie smiles when this is mentioned to him. "There's a lot of plays out there that Coach Hank has," he then says. "There's a lot of plays we can execute that we haven't used yet."
Statistically, at least, Central's defense has been even better, surrendering an average of just nine points per-game (fourth best in the nation). Its key is a bevy of active linebackers that feature junior Armond Staten and seniors Nick Bellore and Matt Berning, who's from Dusseldorf, Germany. "I said to our offense, 'This is the best defense we played this year,'" says 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. "I thought Vanderbilt was pretty dang good. But the whole package at Central, they're giving up 2.3 yards per-rush, they haven't been scored on in the first or fourth quarter. This defense is playing lights out."
Central finished last season as champions of the MAC; by defeating Troy in double overtime in the GMAC Bowl; and ranked No. 24 in the nation. But gone from that group are record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour, who was drafted by the Bears, and receiver/return specialist Antonio Brown, who was drafted by the Steelers. Not gone, significantly, is its offensive line, which is both big (ranging in size from 290 to 320) and experienced (all of them had been starters before this season).
"Everything happens for them because of the experience and the production of their offensive line," says Fitzgerald. "This is as experienced an offensive line that we've played yet this year. They're very physical, very athletic and they play snap through the whistle. Everything gets dictated through them."
"We have young players in a lot of key positions," echoes Central coach Dan Enos. "The glue that has held it together has been that offensive line."
In LeFevour's place is redshirt sophomore Ryan Radcliff, who in his first three games has gone 60-of-92 for 795 yards and three touchdowns. "I played in an (Ohio high school) All Star game with him. He was a great quarterback," remembers 'Cat wide receiver Jeremy Ebert. "He tore us up in the All Star game. I think he was MVP of the game. A great passer, very accurate. He was pretty beastly that game."
"They haven't skipped a beat," adds Fitzgerald. "I know Danny set every record maybe in Central history. But it's just a matter of time until Ryan puts himself in that position too. You've seen him, each week, get better and better."
Quickly noted: In its last two games against Big Ten opponents, Central defeated Indiana (2008) and Michigan State (2009). . . Central's last two coaches were Brian Kelly, who stopped off at Cincinnati before landing at Notre Dame, and Butch Jones, who succeeded Kelly at Cincinnati. Enos, who succeeded Jones, spent last season as the Michigan State running backs coach. . . In one of those serendipitous coincidences: both Enos, as a Spartan in 1990, and Fitzgerald, as a 'Cat in '95 and '96, won Big Ten titles as players. . . Central running back Paris Cotton is a modest 5-foot-9, 179 pounds. But in his team's 52-14 win over Eastern Michigan last Saturday, he rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
And finally, on a lighter note, here's what Central linebacker Berning wrote when asked the most-notable thing about his hometown: "The Budesliga club MSV Duisburg, a German football (soccer) club nicknamed 'The Zebras' for their traditional striped jerseys."
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