It was one of the more anticipated Indiana University football games in years. Perhaps the most anticipated opening game in decades. Indiana. Ohio State. Memorial Stadium. ESPN College Gameday. The stage doesn’t get much bigger for IU football.
It took exactly one play for controversy to ensue. It took one play for long-suffering Indiana fans to be overcome with that understandable sense of “here we go again.”
Technically, it wasn’t even a play — not from scrimmage anyway, and for some, that was the problem.
On the opening kickoff on August 31 last year, with Memorial Stadium buzzing, star wide receiver Nick Westbrook sprinted down the field on kickoff coverage looking to make a big play. Then he felt something, and his season was over.
Westbrook and Indiana fans were justifiably enthusiastic about the 2017 season.
The Florida native caught 54 passes for 995 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. He led the team in yardage, TDs and yards per reception. Westbrook was the Big Ten’s top returning receiver in terms of prior year total receiving yards coming in to the 2017 season. He was also named to the 2017 Biletnikoff Award watch list.
What was a player of this caliber doing on special teams? Those questions were certainly asked. Social media erupted within seconds of the kickoff. Indiana head coach Tom Allen addressed the decision to include Westbrook on special teams after the Ohio State game.
“If you say it’s a third of the game, and then you don’t put your best players (on special teams), that doesn’t make sense” Allen said at the time.
That’s an understandable explanation, but for some, not good enough.
On “The Ride With JMV” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis yesterday, Westbrook addressed the matter, attempting to put it to bed once and for all.
“I wanted to be out there for the first play and I wanted to go down and get a forced fumble. There is nothing wrong with me being out there” Westbrook said yesterday.
Will that be enough to end the debate? Probably not, but the star wide receiver is moving on. After enduring nearly a year of grueling rehabilitation, he says he is better than ever. He looked to teammates that had suffered similar fates for inspiration.
There was no better place to look than fellow wide receiver J-Shun Harris, who is somewhat of a resident expert on rehabbing from knee injuries. Harris, who is returning to play this season after no less than three major knee surgeries knows all of the ins and outs of making a comeback, and Westbrook was taking notes.
“He was doing so well, had those first couple punt returns for touchdowns at the beginning of the season that was after his second, there is nothing that should stop me” Westbrook told JMV.
Unfortunately for Harris, he later joined Westbrook back in rehab after suffering that third ACL injury. Now the pair is back and ready for a fresh start in 2018.
Westbrook is back on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, and he told JMV that he “feels faster and stronger than ever before.” Now the only question is whether he and his fellow receivers can get through the first quarter at Florida International on September 1.
Well, no, the other question is whether Westbrook would run back out on kick coverage if duty calls again next month in South Florida. Westbrook didn’t hesistate when JMV asked him just that question.
“I’ll do it.”
Time will tell how the knee responds in real game action, but there is no questioning Westbrook’s character. And at least for him, there is no questioning whether he should play special teams.
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