Westbrook suffers season-ending ACL injury

Indiana will have to move forward without one of its most productive receivers.

Junior Nick Westbrook suffered a season-ending ACL injury on the opening kickoff of Thursday’s game against No. 2 Ohio State, IU coach Tom Allen said Monday, leaving the Hoosiers without one of their top outside targets.

Stunningly, it’s the second consecutive season that Indiana has lost its most productive returning receiver on his first play of the season.

Last fall, top target Simmie Cobbs returned from a Week 1 suspension only to fracture his fibula and tear ligaments around his ankle on his first play of the following week’s game against Ball State.

Westbrook earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season after catching 54 passes for 995 yards and six touchdowns. With Cobbs unavailable in 2016, Westbrook stepped into a bigger role and led the team in yardage, touchdowns and yards per reception (18.4).

“As we’ve shared with our team, sometimes life’s not fair,” Allen said. “Things happen and it’s tough, and he’s got a good attitude about it. He just knows that this is a challenge he has to overcome. And you just watch the games, even (Sunday) and the day before, things like that happen and it’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the game.”

Although Allen has faced social media backlash for using Westbrook on special teams, the IU coach stood by the decision Monday. It’s a common practice at Indiana, where previous coaching staffs have used the same approach.

All-Big Ten receiver Cody Latimer was a major factor on special teams coverage during his junior season in 2013. From 2010 through 2013, receiver Kofi Hughes also had a presence on special teams, particularly in coverage. Last season, starting receiver Ricky Jones earned praise for his special teams contributions. This year, IU is also using All-American linebacker Tegray Scales to cover punts.

Not only has IU sought to use some of its best athletes to cover kicks, it has also used special teams as a way for the program’s NFL prospects to demonstrate their versatility for the next level.

Ideally, Indiana would like to recruit to a point where it could rely solely on its depth to cover kicks. That’s difficult to do, though technically, Westbrook did enter Thursday’s opener as Donavan Hale’s backup at the second outside receiver spot. Whether Westbrook was a starting receiver or not, he likely would have still helped on kick coverage. Coaches across college football — not merely at Indiana — want players they trust in positions to make plays, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams.

Since assuming head coaching duties in December, Allen, a former special teams coordinator, has stressed the need for improved special teams play in Bloomington. To get it, Allen says he must continue to rely on some of his best available players.

“If you say it’s a third of the game and you don’t put your best players on that, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” Allen said. “So it’s either important or it’s not. And depth comes into it, too, for sure. We played an Ohio State team that has the luxury of rolling in a lot of their twos on special teams, and there’s not much of a drop-off in talent and speed from that.

“I haven’t coached many places where that was the case, where you had that luxury to be able to do that. So we have to use our guys and unfortunately, you don’t play scared to get hurt.”

Losing Westbrook from the receiving corps could open the door for freshmen such as Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle to earn backup reps behind Hale. Redshirt freshman Taysir Mack should also have a chance to impact IU’s passing game.

“It’s their job to convince their position coach and the head coach that they deserve to play,” Allen said. “… It’s a long season, and that’s why you have to have depth. Things happen to guys and sometimes there’s injuries that last a whole season, and some programs lost their quarterback for the whole year this weekend. So it’s obviously a part of this game.”

One comment

  1. why not put a freshman (Ty Fryfogle, LaDamion Hunt, Craig Nelson, etc. or Bryant Fitzgerald – oops the administration screwed up his eligibility ) on the special teams, instead of redshirting most or all of your freshman?? Hard to understand this decision, to put your top (team leader in yardage, touchdown and yard per reception) returning receiver on special team….NO, it is not about playing scared, it is about playing smart!!!! All we heard all year is how we need bigger receiver on the field for those mismatch situation, and now one of the biggest (6’4″) receiver is gone. Yes, I realize that injuries can happen anytime and anywhere, but this injury seem to come about from poor decision.

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