Wootton's long road back

Everything Northwestern senior Corey Wootton saw from himself and his rehabbed right knee in the preseason was promising.

He felt good cutting. His quickness was there. He went full bore in all the team's drills. He was confident he could return to the field after suffering a torn ACL in last season's Alamo Bowl and be that same dominating defensive end.

Now, after two games back, Wootton realizes it's not that easy.

"I don't feel quite like I'm a 100 percent yet," he said. "I felt like I was close to 100 percent in the little workouts and drills before we started camp. Football practices and games are a different situation. There are different movements you can't simulate during agility drills."

Wootton described playing on his knee right now as feeling awkward, and it's been apparent in his play. He isn't blowing past offensive linemen with his speed and pulling down quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield as he did last season, when he had 10 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss. Against Towson and Eastern Michigan this season, he has totaled one tackle and one quarterback hurry.

"It's frustrating," Wootton said. "Me being the person I am and the player I am, I hold myself to a higher standard. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself too early. It's only been eight months since major knee surgery. I want to play well. The coaches have said I've done a pretty good job. I want to do a great job."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald understands exactly what Wootton is going through. Fitzgerald broke his leg in the second-to-last game of the 1995 season and missed the Rose Bowl. He returned the next season and needed some time before he got back to his old self.

"It takes time," Fitzgerald said. "It took me four or five games to get my swagger back, as the kids say. There's no young man in my program I'm more proud of than Corey Wootton. A lesser man wouldn't be playing right now. A lesser man wouldn't have the expectations he has.

"He's doing phenomenal. The only expectations I have for Corey is to be the best player he can be. The rest of the external factors, I don't care about it."

The one external thought Wootton can't hide from is that of the NFL. Before his injury, he toyed with leaving for the NFL and might have gone as early as the second round, given that his 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame along with quickness interested teams. Now, he has to prove to NFL scouts he can be that same player again.

"That slips into your mind every now and then," Wootton said. "You don't allow yourself to think about it . I want to do everything to help my team. After the season, all the other stuff with the NFL and other stuff will take care of itself. I have to keep working hard and improving and just becoming more comfortable with my body and leg."

The luxury of Northwestern's schedule is that Wootton can get back to form slowly before he's really needed to be a presence. The Wildcats have Syracuse this week and follow with Minnesota, Purdue and Miami (Ohio).

"My leg feels like it gets better every week," Wootton said. "That's the good upside about things. I'm just trying to take it one week at a time. I'm hoping I'll be extremely comfortable with it by the time the Big Ten season starts."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.