NU's Wootton works his way back into form

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Patience is the theme right now for Corey Wootton, and for Northwestern fans anticipating huge things from the senior defensive end.

Wootton isn't quite up to game speed as he comes off of ACL surgery. Those constant double teams don't help, either. But he feels it coming back slowly.

"I don't feel like I'm quite there yet, but every week it's getting better," Wootton said after Wednesday's practice. "After being out for six, six-and-a-half months before I could train again, it's just going to take time. It gets frustrating, but I just try to push through it."

Wootton has one tackle and two quarterback hurries in Northwestern's first two games, though he didn't play much in the team's season-opening romp of Towson. The burst that helped him record 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2008 hasn't shown up consistently, but he isn't far away.

Defensive line coach Marty Long admits he hasn't had enough time to truly assess Wootton's situation. Wootton reached the point of attack seven times in last week's game against Eastern Michigan. A better gauge comes Saturday when the Wildcats head to Syracuse (ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET).

"What he went through was traumatic, and his body's feeling a little different than it did at this time last year," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "So now he's got to get used to it and comfortable with it, and he's close. He's really close.

"What I'm most proud of is what he's fought through overcoming this injury. A lesser man, seven months in, would never have gone through camp. A lesser man would not be playing right now."

Even if Wootton can't get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, he still has the skills to change the game. The 6-foot-7, 280-pound senior takes up a lot of space and has graded in every major defensive statistical category (tackles, TFL's, sacks, pass deflections, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, QB hurries and blocked kicks) twice in the past three seasons.

Wootton has 12 pass deflections and four interceptions in his career.

"I want to do everything I can, use my length to get my hands in the passing lanes when I drop into coverage," he said. "Maybe even attracting double-team blocks, which has been the case so far. If they double me, that's going to free somebody else us up. It'll give us a chance to get home."

After controlling the line of scrimmage for much of last season, Northwestern's defensive line has started slowly in 2009. Standout defensive tackle John Gill has departed, and several players (Wootton, defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, defensive end Vince Browne) are coming off of knee injuries.

Fitzgerald wants to simplify things this week and let his defenders just attack the opponent.

"We attack up front," Long said. "That's the most important thing. They're getting better and better at doing that every day. Our thing right now is fundamentals, attack the line of scrimmage and when it's time to rush the passer, pin your ears back and rush the passer.

"And have fun."

The plan works for Wootton.

"I'm feeling more comfortable," he said, "and I'm trying to do everything I can to get to that point where I feel completely comfortable and back to my old self."