Dec. 14, 2010
WATCH: Fitz gives Tuesday's Bowl Practice Report
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The practice ends and Dan Persa, who has been an observer, wanders over. He is, despite the ruptured Achilles that truncated his season, still a familiar presence around the 'Cats and, even more, constantly a sage tutor to Evan Watkins, who replaced him at quarterback. So here, naturally enough, we wonder about the advice he offers. "Just little things, the smallest things that can make a difference," he says.
"Mechanic wise, read wise, little things, how to look off a defender, where, when, stuff like that. Little timing things that make a big difference that you don't always see playing as backup. I think those things, just reacting on a guy's first movement instead of his second or third just to get the ball out of your hand that much quicker."
Which guys is he talking about?
"Any movement by the key you're reading. Say if it's a corner, if it's a high-low on a corner, if he takes one step back, throw it. Instead of waiting for him to start playing the game with you, make your move off his first move."
Is that a tough thing for a quarterback to do when he first sees action?
"I think so. I think just trusting yourself right away, kind of letting it go. Trusting your read and letting it go."
"I think the biggest thing is he (Watkins) has got to trust what he sees and go with it," the 'Cat offensive coordinator Mick McCall will echo moments later. "He'll come off and I'll ask him what coverage it was.
"'It was man.'
"'Well then throw it. You knew what it was.'
"'No well but nothing. You saw what you saw, throw the ball. You know where the ball goes. Throw it.'
"Or it was Cover Two. 'You know where the ball goes. Throw it. Or check it down. You don't have to force anything. Just check the ball down.'
"Stuff like that. He's just got to trust what he sees and go with it and go play."
Why is that so hard for a player in Watkins's situation to do?
"You think about it. You've got 21 other guys on the field and half of them want to breath down your neck and eat you for lunch and the other half are running all over the place and I've got to trust exactly what I see of all these 21 other guys in a matter of 2.5 seconds. It happens fast. It's harder than everybody thinks it is. . .and Evan, he's only a redshirt freshman. We expect" -- and here McCall snaps his fingers once, twice, three times -- "this, and it doesn't necessarily happen that fast. It's a development, it's a process."
Minutes later these comments of Persa and McCall are relayed to Watkins. "That's it pretty much. Don't overthink what you're seeing," he says, slowly nodding his head. "What the defense is going to give you, they're going to give you, and you've got to take what they give you. When you see a linebacker drop and you have an opening to throw the ball, don't overthink. Throw it and let it rip. When you do that, good things happen."
Has he started to do that as the 'Cats practice for their Jan. 1 bowl date with Texas Tech?
"Yeah. Yeah. I feel we've been playing more loose out here, not thinking too much, and it's helped a lot."
Why has that been hard for him?
"At the quarterback position, you have so many things to know, so much reading, so many things you're looking at, sometimes you get in a zone where you're thinking too much and not letting yourself play. But once you realize that and remind yourself to go out there and have fun and play fast, it kind of comes natural."
Can he compare his current struggle with that concept to how he performed in high school, where we imagine he wasn't thinking at all?
He chuckles. "Yeah. It's a drastic change. Senior year in high school, you just go out there and play fast and just react. Basically, you're not thinking at all. You're just making plays. Then you come here and have a lot more responsibilities, but when you stray away from that feeling of just having fun, that's sometimes when the problems occur. So you've got to get back to that mode."
Does he feel that mode coming back?
"Yeah. Definitely. That's what I first thought of actually (in the practices). When you start playing fast and letting it rip, it feels like high school. You just play."
Did he ever experience that feeling against either Illinois or Wisconsin, those games he started?
"Many points in the Wisconsin game we were moving the ball pretty well and it did feel, 'OK, you can do this.' It was boom, boom, boom, march down the field, and it kind of felt the same way. But obviously not enough. We have to improve on that, be more consistent with that."
The Big Ten will not only expand next season. It will also hand out a bevy of new awards and one of them, to the conference's best linebacker, will be named in honor 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald and former Illinois great Dick Butkus. (It is officially called the Butkus-Fitzgerald Trophy.) "It's pretty humbling. I'm honored," Fitzgerald said when asked about this. "I grew up wanting to win the Butkus Award (which goes to the nation's top linebacker). I grew up wanting to be that kind of linebacker. Now to be side by side with a player like that, a person like that, is an honor. Maybe one of the three boys (his three sons) can have a chance to compete for that one day. That would be pretty cool. Pretty cool. But I don't know if we have linebackers in the family right now. We'll see."
And finally, Persa, on himself: "I'm doing well. I'm ahead of schedule. I've been off crutches for about a week-and-a-half. So I'm doing really good." Is it hard for him watching? "Yeah. Yeah, it's hard. But I'm going to control what I can control and get better as fast as I can."
Check out the full Skip Myslenski NUsports.com Archive!
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook! and subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter to receive the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!