Indiana football: WR Nick Westbrook ready for final hurrah

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The clock is ticking, and it has been for a while. A long while. For fifth-year senior Nick Westbrook, that tick-tick-tick is ringing loudly in his ears.

It’s the end of the road in Bloomington for Westbrook, the dynamic wide receiver from Lake Mary, Fla. His career at Indiana has been filled with some extreme highs and deep lows, but he’s ready to go out in style this season as his college career comes to a close.

The last chapter, he says, is going to be a good one. And that’s a promise. He’s already been Indiana’s top receiving threat, and now he’s ready to step up and be a leader, too. It’s time.

“Being a vocal leader, that’s something that’s kind of out of my comfort zone, but it’s something I need to do is grow as a player and be a leader on this team,’’ Westbrook said. “They say that leading by example isn’t leading, it’s just doing your job. So I don’t want to just do my job. I want to do more.

“It’s all about just speaking up and not holding back. I held back before; it was just my mindset, not really on my mind and just kind of off in the distance.’’

Westbrook’s time at Indiana has been quite the journey. He got a small taste as a freshman in 2015 — 6 catches for 69 yards and a score — but then blew up as a sophomore and was one of the best receivers in the country. He had 54 catches for 994 yards, and was a big-play threat every weekend.

And, oh, did he have some moments. He led the Big Ten in catches over 40 yards, had three 100-yard games (Ball State, Wake Forest, Northwestern), and scored six touchdowns. Greatness was no longer around the corner. It had arrived.

But then his junior year, the worst possible thing happened. On the very first play of the first game in 2017 against No. 2-ranked Ohio State in a much-hyped home opener, Westbrook tore his ACL covering the kickoff. His hopes for a huge season — and a likely early entry into the NFL — disappeared in an instant. On a special teams play, no less.

Instead of playing 12 more games, it was surgery and then months and months of long, grueling rehab. The worst.

“When you tear your ACL, the process of recovery is a long, difficult process,’’ Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “I’ve often seen guys get broken by it, or they come back better than they ever were before.

“There’s some highs, some lows, some difficulties, some frustrations in rehab. It’s hard to go through. You work your tail off all year long to get ready to play and then the first play of the season, you get hurt. You’re out for the whole year, and those are hard things. To see how he’s responded to all that has been impressive. As a fifth-year guy, he’s been around here a long time, he’s seen a lot of things. He wants to be a leader.’’

Michael Westbrook reaches up to catch a pass against Michigan.

Westbrook did fine a year ago, making 42 catches for 590 yards. He was back, but not where he wanted to be. He knew he could do more, and he’s more than ready to prove that now in his final season.

“I feel as strong as I’ve ever been since I got here,’’ Westbrook said. “I’m definitely stronger, and I want to be a better blocker, get some pancake blocks out there.

“It feels great to be 100 percent healthy. Last year, I was cleared, but I think I still had it in the back of my head that I was coming off that injury. This year is different, for sure. I’m 100 percent now. Last year, I was probably about 90. Maybe 90.’’

The follow-up question had to be asked. Was that last 10 percent in his head?

“Exactly. It was all in my head at that point,’’ he said with a smile. “I wasn’t all there, especially at the beginning of the season. Being healthy means a lot, but it’s also my last one. That really matters too.’’

Indiana has finished 5-7 two seasons in a row, with a lot of near misses along the way. This year, things are expected to be better. There’s a confidence that’s obvious around this program now, and you see it in Westbrook, too. It’s time to take that next step up on the way out the door.

“If you know you can hang in with the (powerhouses in the Big Ten East), then all it is, is getting that final piece to the puzzle. We have confidence that we can be at that next level. How our schedule is set up, we’re in the perfect league to do it because we have the opportunity to really win some big games.

“We’re in a great position here, and we know what we have to do.’’

Sharing that confidence is part of being a leader, too. Westbrook is ready for all of it.

“I don’t think any of the guys coming in are afraid of the challenge,’’ Westbrook said. “We see that in the summer workouts and practices. We tell them, there is no difference between them and us. In a lot of those games, we’re just one play away. We just need to make that extra play this year.

Indiana’s offense struggled last year, but new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer has given the group a refreshed level of energy. They’re looking to do big things, and explosive plays need to be part of the mix.

Westbrook likes all that.

“It’s been exciting to see the emphasis on the passing game, and to see the playbook get opened up,’’ he said. “That’s going to be the fun part of camp, seeing how that passing game grows. We can do some big things, and we know that.’’