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Michael Penix says he’s on schedule to return for the opener, but he’s not running yet

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix said Monday that he’s making good progress in his rehabilitation from the second ACL tear in his career, but he’s not running yet with about just over two weeks to go before Indiana begins spring football practice on March 9. He does still believe he’ll be ready for the season opener on Sept. 4 at Iowa.

“I’m on schedule if not a little bit ahead of schedule,” Penix said. “I’ve been working extremely hard to get back. I’m doing everything I can to do out and continue to help motivate the team, still be a leader even though I can’t do certain activities. I’ve been doing real good, progressing every week, and I feel myself getting a lot stronger and more comfortable with my body still.”

That being said, Penix is being very careful with his right knee, which he injured in Indiana’s Nov. 28 win over Maryland. Penix also tore his ACL in the same knee in 2018. He said he’s not running or throwing yet and even when he’s walking, he’s being protective, especially given the recent snow that’s hit the Midwest. IU assistant athletic director for football performance Aaron Wellman said Penix is largely working on exercises that try to regain the strength in his right leg to recreate symmetry between his right and left legs.

“I’m sticking with the program,” Penix said. “Just more rehab stuff right now. On-the-field stuff will come later. I’m not really worried about that right now. I’m just making sure I stay focused and do whatever the trainers tell me. I’m just trying to stay healthy, especially outside of the facility. There’s a lot of snow fall, so there’s a lot of ice around. I’m making sure I take safe precautions when I walk. It’s just making sure I don’t have no setbacks. That’s the biggest thing right now, making sure there’s no setbacks and continue to keep moving forward. I know for sure I’ll be ready come gameday.”

Penix threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns against 14 interceptions in six games last season before his injury and also rushed for two touchdowns. The Hoosiers were 5-1 in his starts and he was named a second-team All-Big Ten pick behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields by both the coaches and the media. After the injury, Jack Tuttle took over at quarterback and helped the Hoosiers win at Wisconsin, but he struggled in Indiana’s loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl.

Penix is, of course, entirely too used to the rehabilitation process. His first ACL tear came in his third appearance in his true freshman season in a promising game against Penn State in which he completed nine of 19 passes for 94 yards and rushed twice for 24 yards. He then started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and threw for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns in those games before injuring his right sternoclavicular joint (the joint where the clavicle meets the sternum) against Northwestern and saw that season end. So the second ACL tear meant the third season-ending injury for Penix in three college seasons. His highest points as a quarterback have been some of the most triumphant moments in Indiana football history, but he’s played in a combined total of 15 games in three seasons with the program.

Another rehab, he said, might be depressing if not for the people around him.

“At the beginning I was kinda down,” Penix said. “Just help from my family and friends and teammates, they kept me up. They kept me thinking positive. This is something I wouldn’t wish on anybody and nobody would wish to be in this position. But having them be on my side, pushing me every single day, telling me to stay motivated and to continue to chase my dream, that was real helpful and something that helped me get through it. I’m still trying to stay positive.”

His experience is unique among current Indiana teammates and he hasn’t sought advice from former teammates who have experienced multiple ACL injuries, former wide receiver J-Shun Harris being an example. However, he has been motivated by defensive back Marcelino Ball who tore his ACL before the 2020 season started and has been rehabbing since.

“He continues to motivate me every day,” Penix said. “We see each other early mornings all the time. We’re always with each other for a while. He keeps me motivated and I keep him motivated as well. … That’s just the love we have for each other in this program.”

Each time Penix has been injured, he’s returned in better form than he was before. The Hoosiers trust he’ll do the same this time around when Indiana will be carrying higher expectations than at any time in the last half-century. Indiana finished the season ranked No. 12 nationally. Of the 10 Indiana players including Penix who earned All-Big Ten status from either the coaches or the media in 2020, seven will be returning including wide receiver Ty Fryfogle and tight end Peyton Hendershot.

The expectations so far are largely based on Penix being the man under center and being healthy. The Hoosiers believe that’s a good bet.

“Mike has done a fantastic job of really just locking into the daily discipline associated with coming back from that,”  Wellman said. “We know that there are good days and there are some bad days. It’s pushing through those bad days and celebrating those small wins on his road to recovery.”

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