The allure of a game against his school’s fiercest rival inside their state’s most hallowed ballpark was enough for Kain Colter.
At his coach’s urging, the then-Northwestern true freshman had no qualms about burning his redshirt campaign — a football season already 10 games old with just three remaining — for a chance to play against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Wrigley Field.
“At that point, I felt like it was a no-brainer,” Colter said. “It was a huge game and I felt like I had a chance to go in there and make a big impact.”
The Wildcats lost that 2010 contest, but gained key insight on the player who today will play a key part in their attempt to become bowl eligible with a win against Penn State.
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Since that game at Wrigley, Colter has emerged as one of college football’s most versatile players. The 6-foot, 190-pounder has averaged more than 100 all-purpose yards per game since he made his debut.
He’s done most of his damage with his bounding strides and smooth cuts in the Wildcats’ rushing game. Colter has rushed for 17 touchdowns and 1,168 yards on 223 carries in 21 games.
He’s made plays in the Wildcats’ passing game as a compliment to fellow quarterback Trevor Siemian and as one of Siemian’s primary targets, too.
The Wildcats’ pre-snap deception is largely based on Colter and where he lines up - at running back, as a receiver split out wide or in the slot, or as a traditional quarterback.
“That’s a guy you have to understand on every single snap where he is,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said.
So far this season, Colter has excelled with his arm. He’s thrown for six touchdowns and is completing just over 65 percent of his passes. He’s also caught nine for 131 yards.
“I don’t get too wrapped up in the title of my position,” Colter said. “I just try to go out there and make plays.”
Colter said if he had to choose, he’d prefer to be known as a quarterback. After all, the quarterback room is where his football weeks always have started with positional meetings.
Throughout the week, he’ll move around as offensive coordinator Mike McCall sees fit. Learning the offense and how to interpret opposing defenses from a quarterback’s standpoint has helped Colter fine-tune other aspects of his game.
He knows where Siemian will be looking for him down the field against a certain coverage and how to get to the seams or open areas quicker. He has a thorough understanding of pass protections and how to read lead blocks behind and past the line of scrimmage — valuable abilities usually reserved for wide receivers and running backs, traits Colter brings to the offense in one uniform.
Last week against Indiana, Colter notched his first career tackle, but Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald may not be as ready to use his offensive star on the defensive side of the ball.
Then again, Fitzgerald didn’t plan on asking Colter to forgo his redshirt season.
The plan was for Colter to sit out all of 2010. Tears to the Colorado native’s labrum and bicep prevented him from throwing the football effectively when he arrived on campus. Instead, Colter got to work as a do-it-all player on the Wildcats’ practice squad.
After playing in the final three games that year, Colter entered last season as the primary backup to quarterback Dan Persa.
“We were looking at ourselves after a couple of weeks and saying, ‘Alright, what are we doing taking him off the field?’” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats gave Colter more plays and he finished as the team’s leading rusher.
Since then, Colter has spent most of his film study sessions watching dual-threat players such as former NFLers Antwaan Randle El and Kordell Stewart, hoping to add to his repertoire.
At this point, nothing he does surprises Fitzgerald. And although Colter can’t get back the 10 games he sat out, thinking he’d redshirt in 2010, he has plenty more time to add to his impressive resume.
“Of course I’d love to have another year to play with these guys,” Colter said.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.