Kain Colter is an easy man to find.
Just look behind the center; or split out wide; or protecting the ball as he slithers past defenders; or leaping over the middle to make a catch; or rolling right with a receiver in his sights; or in the endzone.
Playing as a dual-threat quarterback is one of the most mentally and physically taxing tasks any college athlete can face. Yet, somehow, the role is a mere two-thirds of Colter’s job.
The Northwestern junior often lines up quarterback for the Wildcats – he started at the position in the team’s first four games of the season. But, look closely, and you might also see him outside the hashes, arms dangling, poised to sprint – he had nine catches for 131 yards in a 44-29 win over Indiana in Week 5. And when the Wildcats reach the red zone and need someone to punch it in, the electric, 190-pound Colter is often the man who gets the job – he’s tied for the team lead with eight rushing touchdowns.
In short, Colter is as rare as a double rainbow; he’s a true triple-threat offensive weapon. And it’s no gimmick – he’s doing it all on a 6-1 team in the thick of the Big Ten title hunt. He’s second on the team in passing yardage, second in rushing yards, fifth in receiving yards and second in yards-per-catch. For his coach, there’s only one word to describe a man of such unique, disparate talents.
“Kain is Kain,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the Wildcats bested Indiana. “He is unbelievable. He is the most dynamic young man.”
There was no better view of Kain being Kain this season than that win over the Hoosiers. On Northwestern’s first drive of the second quarter, Colter caught a pair of balls for 35 yards, helping set up a field goal. On the next drive, he caught an eight yard pass for a first down. Three plays later, he took a shotgun snap from the Indiana eight and sprinted into the endzone. The drive after, he caught two more passes. The drive after that, he ran for a 15-yard score. Later, two plays after snagging a 13-yard pass from teammate Trevor Siemian, he galloped for 26 more, helping set up another Northwestern field goal. In the fourth, he followed a drive in which he caught two balls for 28 yards with one where he ran four times for 53, including the 22-yard touchdown gallop that put the game away. In the end, he’d caught nine balls for 131 yards and carried it fourteen more times for 161 and all four of Northwestern’s touchdowns.
“He did a good job of shaking loose and beating his guy,” fellow Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian, who steps under center when Northwestern coaches send Colter out wide or beckon him to the sideline for a breather, said after that game. “I don’t think they had an answer for Kain all day; at receiver, at quarterback, wherever it was. If he’s getting loose, I’m going to get him the ball.”
Colter only threw three passes that day. Two weeks earlier, he mustered 20 attempts, completing 16 for 144 yards in a win against Boston College. How Northwestern coaches use their most versatile weapon is amorphous – largely depending on the opponent and the flow of the game – but, no matter the role, they lean on him frequently. So far this season he has averaged more than 23 combined pass attempts, rush attempts and receptions per game. He’s completed 70.5 percent of those passes, tossing a pair of scores, gained 421 yards on the ground and made 13 catches for 152 yards.
All of that usage, much of it more punishing than any faced by a typical quarterback, even a dual-threat one, leaves him more vulnerable to injury and fatigue. Fitzgerald has said he understands his star will likely wear down quicker than a typical signal-caller, so the coaching staff, and Colter himself, aren’t hesitant to call for the more stationary Siemian. That’s what happened in the first week of the season – Colter worried his performance would suffer after carrying the ball 14 times and bruising his ribs, so he asked that coaches turn to Siemian, who tossed a touchdown pass with 44 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 42-41 win.
“You’ve got to know your body,” Colter told reporters at a practice following the Syracuse game. “When you’re unable to do something, you’ve got to trust in the guy behind you. I think that’s the biggest thing. I knew Trevor could go out there and ball and make the throws out there.”
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That’s a rare sentiment for a quarterback to express about the man who is challenging him for snaps. Yet, there’s no animosity between the two and each is comfortable with his role – or roles, in Colter’s case – on the team. Such amity is rare when teams opt to platoon signalcallers. Colter is most effective when opponents are guessing between run and pass and is a perfect backfield complement to running back Venric Mark as the duo try to churn up yardage – and clock – to protect leads. Siemian is more frequently called upon when it’s clear the Wildcats need to go to the air – so far this season, he’s nearly doubled Colter’s yardage output and thrown the ball 49 more times than his peer.
“You can’t let your pride get in the way,” Colter said at the same practice. “I told Trev I’m proud of him. … The bottom line is we’re all a team.”
After seeing limited action as a freshman in 2010, Colter, a former high school quarterback, first adopted his triple-threat role last year, getting his first start at quarterback in the season-opener because Dan Persa hadn’t fully recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Wildcats won that game and Colter led them to a 2-1 record before Persa’s return. In all, Colter tossed 82 passes last year – only four more than he’s thrown so far this season – for 673 yards and six touchdowns. Once Persa returned, coaches yearned to keep the talented Colter on the field, so he started lining up at receiver while continuing to get chances to run the ball, leading the Wildcats with 654 yards on the ground.
Though Colter and Northwestern have smoldered early, they’ve yet to embark on the toughest stretch of their conference schedule. Nebraska, and its 15th-ranked passing defense, loom on Saturday. To topple the Huskers, Northwestern will need to win the war on the ground. To do that, the Wildcats will need to lean on their versatile star, who is capable of even more than he’s already showed, Fitzgerald promised.
“[Earlier this season] every time we took Kain off the field, we looked at ourselves collectively as a coaching staff and said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ” Fitzgerald said after the Indiana win. “We are just getting started with the things that we’re going to do with him.”
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