You could hardly blame Nick Westbrook if he came back a little tentative. Coming off his own ACL tear that wiped out his entire 2017 season (save for one play), the redshirt junior has watched teammate and fellow wide receiver J-Shun Harris suffer through three such injuries.
Fortunately for Westbrook, Harris has also written the book on how to return.
With Harris emerging recently with 21 catches and more than 200-plus yards over the last three games, Westbrook didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Whether it was watching Harris, just part of the process of working his way back, or perhaps a shift in the game plan, the 2016 version of Nick Westbrook has seemed to return over the last two weeks.
After a 2016 season that saw Westbrook catch 54 passes for 995 yards (18.4 average) and six touchdowns the 2017 season held such promise. He had ranked second in the Big Ten in yardage, third in average per catch, seventh in receptions and tied for seventh in scores while averaging 79.3 yards per game.
You likely know the story of Westbrook’s 2017 season — all one play of it. The 2016 honorable mention All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten selection suffered that ACL injury on the opening kickoff of the season against Ohio State.
Now a year later, and once again coming off a game against the Buckeyes, an entirely new chapter is being written.
With key injuries in the IU wide receiver group, it has been more important than ever that Westbrook return to or exceed his level of play that earned him all of those accolades two seasons ago.
Just how good is Westbrook in the eyes of the IU coaching staff?
When developing the game plan for No. 3 Ohio State and their never ending roster of four and five-star talent, the Hoosier coaches saw an opportunity to exploit the Buckeyes downfield with number 15.
He didn’t disappoint, hauling in five catches and a touchdown while going over the century mark for the first time this season. It was probably just a coincidence, but Harris had two catches for 42 yards on the drive that ended with the Westbrook touchdown.
After the Ohio State game, Westbrook said for him and the IU passing game, last week’s performance should only be the beginning.
“I told Peyton (Ramsey) that this is kind of scary and shows you just how dangerous we can be, and going forward in the season we should expect a lot out of ourselves as receivers in the passing game.”
Beyond working his way back from a major knee injury, part of the challenge for Westbrook has been gaining familiarity with his quarterback. Richard Lagow was the IU quarterback during the redshirt junior’s big 2016 season, and IU spent the spring and fall camps working their way through a quarterback competition.
Westbrook believes that IU’s progress in the passing game is in part due to Ramsey and the receiving corp gaining familiarity with one another.
“We’ve felt our confidence grow each week, and this is kind of a good culmination of that.”
Interestingly, the Hoosiers have been able to make strides in the passing game despite injuries to two of their leading receivers. Luke Timian and Whip Philyor each missed the Ohio State game, marking the third straight game for Timian and the second in a row for Philyor. Tom Allen’s post game comments seemed to indicate that it would be a major surprise if both players didn’t return for this Saturday’s noon kickoff in Bloomington against Iowa.
The timing for the return of Timian and Philyor wouldn’t be better, as the Hawkeyes and their dinged up secondary may be starting a pair of true freshmen cornerbacks this weekend. To be sure, this isn’t any set of true freshmen, as the duo of Riley Moss and Julius Brents combined for three interceptions against Minnesota last week.
But if the Hoosiers are at full strength at receiver on Saturday, on paper that seems like a big opportunity for Indiana. With Ramsey completing 67 percent of his throws to a talented and veteran group of receivers, IU would seem to have a big advantage to spread the ball all over the field.
For Westbrook, seeing more of his teammates involved against the Hawkeyes will be just fine with him.
“I get more happy when other people make plays than when I make one,” Westbrook said after the Ohio State game.
With the Lake Mary, Florida native seemingly back on the level that has put him on the Biletnikoff Award watch list each of the past two seasons, there should be plenty of happiness to go around.
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