Why the Big Ten Race Depends on Rebuilt Knees
Each of us has at least one three-letter acronym we never want to hear. Something that immediately brings to mind a terrible fear, past horror, irreversible mistake, or worst nightmare.
OSU. (Sorry, Wolverine fans, couldn't resist.)
Football players have a most-feared-acronym as well: the dreaded three letters A-C-L.
According to the most trustworthy source on the Internet—okay, I mean Wikipedia—ACL stands for "anterior cruciate ligament," the most commonly injured of the four major knee ligaments. To football players, ACL means "I heard a pop," "season ending," and in some cases, "career-altering."
Athletes that tear an ACL can struggle with pain, mobility, soreness, and even mental issues as they rehab and work toward a full recovery, which can take from six to nine months. However, just because the doctor finally clears someone to play doesn't immediately and magically return the player to pre-surgery form.
Each athlete is different in the amount of time required for them to regain lateral quickness, overcome the mental stigma, erase the fear of contact, etc.
And that brings us to Big Ten football.
While ACL injuries are all too common (Penn State's Mike Mauti and Illinois' Miami Thomas suffered season-ending tears the last two weeks alone), perhaps no conference race in America is as heavily dependent on rebuilt knee ligaments as the Big Ten.
Three programs—over 25 percent of the league—are banking their championship hopes on a player who tore his ACL in the last 12 months. In fact, we could make the argument that the recovering stars are each the single most important player on their school's 105-man roster.
COREY WOOTTON, NORTHWESTERN
Wootton is the obvious poster child for this article. The Northwestern defensive lineman dominated games up front for the Wildcats a year ago, amassing 16 tackles for loss (including 10 sacks) on the way to making the coaches' All-Big Ten first team.
When the 2008 regular season ended, writers were already speculating that the 6'7" end would leave Northwestern early and enter the NFL draft.
Then the Alamo Bowl happened.
Wootton racked up big numbers in that game as well, tallying three tackles, a sack, and his first interception, but the play that everyone remembers from the Wildcats' overtime loss to Missouri is the injury, a torn right ACL for Northwestern's star.
Fast forward to the present: Wootton has stayed in school, rehabbed from surgery, is fully cleared to participate in camp, has been named to every watch list and preseason All-American group imaginable, told the Big Ten Network yesterday he's "close to 100%", and even won a nationally-televised watermelon-eating contest to boot.
So everything's great, right?
With their best player back, it's easy to see why Wildcat fans are expecting great things from a team that won nine games a year ago and got rid of preseason favorite Ohio State on this year's schedule.
Wootton will pick up where he left off, compile a double-digit sack year, draw the double-teams, the rest of the Northwestern defense will benefit, the opposition's high-powered offense will be shut down each week, and the Wildcats can set their sights on Pasadena.
A lot depends on a rebuilt knee in Evanston.
SEAN LEE, PENN STATE
Even at a place with the nickname Linebacker U, Sean Lee could go down in history as one of the greatest linebackers to ever wear the Penn State uniform. Lee played for the Lions as a true freshman and started every game of his sophomore and junior seasons.
The Pittsburgh native seemed to improve every time he took the field, tallying a career-high 17 tackles against Illinois in his junior year (2007). Lee nearly equaled that mark in the 2007 Alamo Bowl, tying the bowl record with 14 tackles and earning himself a First-Team All America nod from Pro Football Weekly.
You already know the next part of the story. Lee tore his ACL in an April 2008 practice and missed all of Penn State's Rose Bowl season. And so, once again, we fast forward to the present day.
In this, his senior season, Lee is expected to continue his assault on the record books and finish as one of the school's top 10 all-time tacklers. He will anchor the Nittany Lions defense for another championship run, fly from sideline to sideline delivering vicious hits, make his presence felt on every snap, improve on his 2007 all-conference performance, buy time for PSU to develop the next crop of receivers by single-handedly shutting down opponents' big-play threats, and propel Joe Paterno to one more BCS bowl.
A lot depends on a rebuilt knee in State College.
JAYCEN TAYLOR, PURDUE
Purdue running back Jaycen Taylor shared time with Kory Sheets in the Boilermaker backfield for all of 2006 and 2007. Though often listed as co-starters, Sheets tended to provide the big plays for the Boilers' ground game while Taylor was Mr. Reliable, averaging 5.62 yards per carry (currently good for fourth in the all-time Purdue record book).
Taylor actually broke his arm during the 2007 season, but shattered doctors' predictions by returning only four weeks later. He tallied a career-high 157 rushing yards with two touchdowns against Northwestern that year, proving he could be the Boilermakers' every-down back when necessary.
Taylor also displayed his versatility outside his running back position throughout the year, helping out with kick returns, fielding a punt return, and even blocking a punt against rival Indiana.
In August 2008, Jaycen Taylor tore his ACL. (You kinda expected that part, right?)
Now it's August 2009. The Boilers have a new coach (although Danny Hope had never seen Taylor play live before training camp, due to the injury). Kory Sheets has moved on to the San Francisco 49ers backfield, leaving Taylor as the only proven option (outside of three backups with less than 100 career yards between them).
Purdue has an inexperienced quarterback, an offensive coordinator slightly less pass-happy than Joe Tiller (he pretty much has to be, right?), and it's time for Jaycen Taylor to be the Boilermakers' main offensive threat.
In other words, Taylor will continue to pick up 5.6 yards a carry, increase his average to 100 yards per game, perfectly set up Joey Elliott's play-action passes, pick up all the crucial third-and-shorts, score at least one rushing touchdown every game, and help Purdue surprise the rest of the league en route to a memorable senior season.
A lot depends on a rebuilt knee in West Lafayette.
This article is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football.
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