EVANSTON--Northwestern is rather thin at wide receiver after losing seven players at the position from last year's squad. But the Wildcats also gained a receiving weapon this spring as a fully healthy Jeremy Ebert returned to the lineup.
Ebert showed the couple thousand fans on hand for Northwestern's spring game on Saturday that he has fully recovered from the hip injury that slowed him down in 2009, and he reminded them all of what he can do to spark an offense.
Ebert caught four passes for a game-high 49 yards and added 11 more yards on a reverse in the 85-play scrimmage. He showed flashes of the speed, hands and elusiveness that were largely absent from his repertoire last fall.
"I'm a lot more confident," said the junior from Hilliard (Ohio) Darby after the game. "My hip is 100 percent."
Ebert said his hip, which was surgically repaired after the 2008 season, was around "80 or 90 percent" last year. It's not surprising, then, that he endured a bit of a sophomore slump, even if he played in all 13 games.
"I was just a little nervous," said Ebert. "I just didn't trust it as much."
Ebert showed a lot of promise as a true freshman two years ago, scoring a touchdown on his first collegiate reception and finishing with 15 catches for 161 yards and two scores. Last year, however, he seemed to be an afterthought in the Wildcats' offense, and even though his numbers went up to 21 catches for 226 yards, he failed to catch a TD pass.
"It was very frustrating (last season)," he explained. "You're a speed guy built around running fast, and you're held up by something. It's annoying."
Quarterback Dan Persa knows that he is going to rely heavily on No. 11 in his first year as the starter, and he showed as much on Saturday. Four of his seven completions (in 11 attempts) went to Ebert.
"Jeremy's had a great spring and that's just a reflection of the winter he had," said the redshirt junior. "He worked hard all winter. He's caught the ball really well and runs the ball after the catch really well."
And Persa thinks that Ebert is just as smart as he is fast.
"He's just a really savvy football player, and he's emerging as one of our top targets," said Persa. "He knows where to be at the right time."
Ebert played quarterback in high school, but it didn't take him long to get acclimated to catching passes instead of throwing them. He credits a couple former Wildcats with teaching him the ropes and serving as his mentors.
"I took a good look at Eric Peterman and Zeke Markshausen," said Ebert. "They were great role models.
Peterman, of course, now plays for the Chicago Bears, and he was watching from the sideline on Saturday. All Markshausen did was improve from one catch in 2008 to 91, to lead the team, in 2009.
Could Ebert be this year's Markshausen for the Wildcats? The sheepish Ebert wouldn't go out on a limb with that bold of a prediction.
"I don't know if anybody can be another Markshausen," he said. "I'm just going to do my best to step into someone's shoes."
Under center, under the microscope: The quarterback position is often the focal point during spring games, and it was no different on Saturday as fans got a glimpse of Persa leading the offense as the No. 1 QB.
Persa looked sharp as a passer, completing 7-of-11 throws for 83 yards -- although he also committed the cardinal sin of throwing an interception to Mike Bolden at the goal line. Persa got sacked three times (quarterbacks could not be hit, but a sack was called whenever a defender touched or got close to them), as the first-team defensive line seemed to get a pretty good push against the No. 1 offensive line.
Persa still seems to have the best burst of any runner on the team, regardless of position. He scored on a one-yard run, but doesn't want to carry the ball too often this season.
"I'll take enough hits in the pocket," he said.
Backup QB Evan Watkins had an up-and-down scrimmage. He finished 12-of-27 for 78 yards and threw the only touchdown pass of the day, a 2-yarder to walkon wide receiver Mike Jensen. He looked late on several throws, was intercepted once, by David Arnold, and could have been picked off a couple other times, as well.
However, Watkins' statisitcs also suffered because of some dropped passes. His best ball of the day -- a deep post that would have been a sure touchdown -- was dropped in the end zone by Lee Coleman.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he was pleased with the play of both of his quarterbacks this spring.
"I like where the offense is at," he said. "We're ahead of where we were last spring,"
A change at punter for 2010? The only punting done on Saturday was during warmup drills, but Fitzgerald hinted that there could be a change at the position when he talked to reporters after the game.
Stefan Demos served as both the placekicker and punter for the Wildcats last season, and Fitzgerald made it clear that he would prefer to have Demos focus on kicking only in 2010.
"I like the spring Brandon Williams had," said Fitzgerald. "We put him into position to be the starting punter. I would love to take one of those jobs off of Stefan's plate, if I could."
Demos hit 2-of-3 field goals on Saturday, making 32- and 26-yarders and missing from 51. Steve Flaherty was 1-of-2 (made 25, missed 39) and Jeff Budzien 2-of-3 (made 36 and 26, missed 48).
Last year, NU had 22 players sidelined for the spring game.
Alumni association: There were dozens of former Wildcat players on hand for the scrimmage. Some of the notables: Tyrell Sutton, C.J. Bacher, Tim McGarigle, Malcolm Arrington, Keegan Kennedy, Desmond Taylor, Nathan Shanks, T.J. Jones, Frederic Tarver, Andrew Brewer, Rob Johnson and Matt Rice.