LARGE BUT NIMBLE, CAPABLE OF CLEARING PATHS AND CATCHING THE BALL, THE TIGHT ends and fullbacks at Northwestern are called superbacks because of their versatility. They practice with offensive linemen and wide receivers, honing the skills for a hybrid position that requires them, in the words of coach Pat Fitzgerald, "to be super at everything. That's how we came up with the term."
Maybe it's misplaced. The superback moniker seems better suited to Kain Colter, a Swiss Army knife of a player who last season threw for 673 yards and six touchdowns, ran for 654 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three more scores. "I really wanted to finish the season 500/500/500," says Colter, who started the first three games at quarterback in place of an injured Dan Persa before being used at virtually every skill position. "We were creative. Defenses never knew where they were going to see me."
At Nebraska last Nov. 5, Colter stepped back under center after Persa had been knocked out of the game and led the Wildcats to a 28--25 victory. Along with catching three balls for 57 yards, he went 4-of-6 passing for 115 yards and a TD; he also rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns. His highlight came early in the third quarter when he turned a broken play into a touchdown. On first-and-goal from the three, after one of the superbacks fell down on a play-action pass, the real Superback went to work. Colter sprinted from the left hash mark to the right pylon, crossing the goal line with outstretched arms while getting blasted by a safety. "He covered more ground than you would have thought anyone possibly could," lineman Patrick Ward says. "He looked like Superman flying through the air," adds Fitzgerald.
Despite Colter's athleticism and diverse abilities, Fitzgerald likely won't use him anywhere but under center this season. "You'll never say never, but Kain is a quarterback, and that's where his focus is going to be," the coach says. "He's got an incredibly bright future at that position."
Not too long ago a shoulder injury left Colter wondering if he'd ever be healthy enough to be a quarterback. He grew up in Denver, where, as a junior at Cherry Creek High, he threw for 1,786 yards, led the Bruins to the 5A state championship game and committed to Stanford. But in the opener of his senior season, he was pancaked from behind as he reached down for a fumble and suffered a torn labrum. Seeing the injury, the Cardinal backed off. "My shoulder was pretty bad," says Colter. "Seven months out of surgery, I couldn't even throw the ball 10 yards." He waited until the off-season to have it repaired, hoping to catch the eye of another school by playing wideout. It worked, especially when Northwestern promised him a shot at quarterback.
But even now Colter's passing is not what it was in high school. "Some guys might be able to put a little more zip on it," he admits. He still experienced pain while throwing last season. But he also has a rare perspective. "I've played receiver in high school and in college," he says. "It helped me perfect my game. I understand the timing, [which helps me] make up for my lack of arm strength. But it is coming back, and I'm not worried about where it will be this season."
A psychology major who aspires to a career as an orthopedic surgeon as well as in the NFL, Colter will be questioned about his arm regardless of which path he takes. Right now, the only knock against him might be that he can't throw the ball to himself.