Big Ten: Michael Strahan

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.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern sensed Corey Wootton's potential as soon as the mammoth defensive end arrived on campus in 2005. At 6-foot-7, Wootton was a unique physical specimen. He has since added weight and checks in at 270 pounds. 

Wootton had a breakout junior season this fall, earning All-Big Ten honors, and NFL scouts are starting to take notice. He recorded nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries.

The Chicago Tribune's Shannon Ryan writes today that Wootton, a New Jersey native who had future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan as a neighbor, could enter the NFL draft a year early.

"Wootton said he would not consider his future until after Northwestern's bowl, but he didn't sound certain that his weekend wardrobe would be purple next year. 'I try not to think about that,' he said. 'I'm not exactly sure. We'll see when the time comes. I have a year of eligibility, so after this season, we'll see how it falls into place.'"

Several Northwestern players I spoke with last week didn't anticipate Wootton forgoing his senior season, but a strong performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl next week could change things. Though Wootton might not be a household name among Big Ten fans, NFL scouts are definitely aware of his potential.

With unique size and speed off the edge, Wootton projects well at the next level. He's a guy who will improve his stock with another season in Mike Hankwitz's scheme, but he also might be ready now.

I think he'll remain at Northwestern for 2009, especially since the Wildcats should be even better on the defensive side. But I wouldn't be shocked if he makes the jump early. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No one outside Bloomington, Ind., knew who Greg Middleton was at this time last year. As a freshman, he made a grand total of six tackles (two solo) with no sacks. Indiana tied for 111th nationally in sacks in 2006, and there wasn't much evidence suggesting that things would improve.

Heading into this fall, the name Middleton makes offensive linemen shudder around the Big Ten.

In 2007 he led the nation and set a Hoosiers record with 16 sacks, the fourth-highest single-season total in Big Ten history. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive end had six multi-sack performances and enters his junior season as a top candidate for the Ted Hendricks Award. Double teams are on the way and Middleton knows it, but he's looking forward to finding new routes to the offensive backfield. I spoke with Middleton earlier this week about his expectations, his teammates and the mind games he plays with opposing tackles.

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