Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It was one of the more heart-wrenching moments of the Big Ten bowl season, a star player sprawled in pain after his right knee buckled on the Alamodome carpet.
Northwestern's Corey Wootton led a stingy defensive effort against heavy favorite Missouri in the Alamo Bowl, recording an interception and a sack against Chase Daniel. But the standout defensive end injured his knee on a noncontact play late in the fourth quarter, and Northwestern went on to lose 30-23 in overtime.
Wootton wants to make sure the painful moment doesn't define his college career. He underwent surgery Jan. 16 and is immersed in rehab, targeting July as a return to full strength. A first-team All-Big Ten honoree last season, Wootton recorded 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The 6-7, 280-pound senior will enter 2009 as an All-America hopeful and a Lombardi Award candidate, but his knee remains a concern. In his first public comments since the Alamo Bowl, Wootton addressed the injury and his outlook for his final season.
First off, how are you feeling overall with the knee?
Corey Wootton: I'm feeling great. The rehab is going well. I'm doing it every day, just trying to get my leg better and get back into shape.
Had you ever had an injury like that?
CW: No. This is the first time I've had anything wrong with my knee. Pretty much my whole life, my knees have been good.
What was the injury, ACL, MCL?
CW: It was an ACL injury, a full tear.
That's obviously a scary injury. What did they tell you as far as recovery time?
CW: I wasn't too worried about it. I know a lot of people have come back from ACL injuries. If this was 20 years ago, my career would have been done. But the way surgeries are today and the way physical therapy is, I'll be back in six months, no problem, and stronger than before.
You were having such a great game before the injury. How tough was that for you, and did you know something was wrong right away?
CW: Oh yeah, I heard a pop. I knew it was something bad. I actually thought I broke my leg, the way it sounded. I didn't know it was my ACL. I thought I broke my leg in half or something.
Obviously, you'll be sitting out for spring practice, but do you have a target date to be back at full strength?
CW: I'm supposed to be cleared by July, and then back for [preseason camp in August].
What has the rehab been like?
CW: I've been doing a lot of pool rehab, getting the range of motion back in my knee, strengthening the muscles surrounding my knee: quad, hamstring.
There had been some talk of you turning pro after last season. Was that on your mind much before the injury, or did you always expect to come back?
CW: I was always kind of leaning to come back. I love college here and everything, and my goal has always been to win a Big Ten championship. I wanted to come back in my fifth year and try to accomplish that.
You were neighbors with Michael Strahan growing up in New Jersey. What was it like getting advice from him as you were developing as a defensive lineman?
CW: It's always good when you have someone who was one of the top defensive ends in the NFL offering you pointers and teaching you different things. You learn from the best and he's one of the best to ever play.
A lot of people will wonder about the injury, but what are your expectations and goals heading into this season?
CW: First off, I want our team to win the Big Ten championship. That's been our goal since the day I stepped into this institution. The other goal of mine is to be able to show people that coming off an ACL injury, I can be a better player than even last year. I'm not going to let something like this break me down at all.
The biggest thing about this is it's a mental injury more so than a physical thing. Because at six months, everything is stronger. Everything is structurally stronger. My right knee will be stronger than my left knee, the way it was reconstructed. It's tighter now. I just want to show people I can come back off something like that and be a better player.
You seemed to be playing your best toward the end of the season. Is it exciting to try to continue that momentum in 2009?
CW: Oh, definitely. There was a lot of buzz surrounding my name. I try not to pay attention to it too much, but it's good to make a name for yourself. I just want to continue on and do the best I can helping my team win the Big Ten championship.
The defense took a big step forward last year. What are the keys to taking the next step as a unit and specifically, as a defensive line?
CW: I would say consistency. It comes down to fundamentals. When we saw in games where we didn't do as well as others, our footwork, our fundamental aspects of D-line play, were terrible. Playing gap-to-gap football and everything like that, it really comes down to the basics. That's something we just want to keep improving on. I know everyone will try to be working on that in spring ball, and I'll be doing what I can, coaching the guys up, because obviously I won't be able to perform in spring ball. We're just looking to improve on that aspect.
What will be your function during spring ball?
CW: I'm just going to do the best I can to be a leader, help out the younger guys, be another coach for our D-line coach, coach [Marty] Long. Me and [defensive tackle] Corbin Bryant, he's another one who got injured this past season, we're not going to be doing spring ball, so we're going to be helping coach Long with the things he can't see.
It seemed like the team's identity shifted last year to the defense, with [coordinator] Mike Hankwitz] and the scheme. You guys led the league in sacks. How important is it to keep the pedal down?
CW: We just want to keep continuing that momentum because the D-line has always been a question mark, for the media, for the other teams. They always say, 'I don't know about their D-line.' This year, we showed that we can rush the passer. We led the Big Ten in sacks. We just want to continue that on and do the same thing next year. We want to lead the nation. We don't just want to lead the Big Ten.
What has this experience taught you about yourself?
CW: This experience has been good. I feel it's made me a stronger person. You never really realize how good you have things until something is taken away from you for a little bit. It happened to me my freshman year [with a neck injury], and it happened again. After my freshman year, I came back my redshirt freshman year and had a pretty good season. I'm just looking to improve on that and come off an injury and show everybody that I can be a better player and this is not something that's going to slow me down in any type of way.
People hear ACL and they automatically think it's the end of the world. How have you kept a positive attitude about the situation?
CW: The biggest thing about ACL [injuries] is just the rehab with it. It's just a long process. If you break a bone, you're back in two months, three months, and you don't really rehab. You just kind of rest and recover. With this, you go through six months of grueling, grueling rehab, but it gets you to be stronger than you were before. It gets you to fo
cus on the things and the muscles you always needed to improve on. It's different things in your balance, the stabilization of your knee. The way surgeries are now and the way physical therapy is, people are back faster and stronger than before.