When junior wideout Nick Westbrook made it past the first play of Indiana’s 38-28 season-opening win at Florida International, his season was already significantly better than what it was a year ago.
Westbrook tore his ACL on the opening kickoff against Ohio State, missed the entirety of 2017 and endured a brutal recovery process. His injury was an enormous blow for Indiana, eliminating the possibility of having Westbrook pair with Simmie Cobbs Jr. for another season on the outside.
It’s essentially been two years since Westbrook played against an opponent. As a redshirt sophomore in 2016, he led the Hoosiers in receiving yards and touchdowns with 54 receptions for 995 yards and six touchdowns. Westbrook legitimately broke out as a sophomore, being named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List in the preseason.
“It was kind of funny,” Westbrook said of being back. “Before the game I was talking with one of my friends and he said ‘hey as long as you make it past the first play, it’s better than last year.’ I laughed but it’s true, I feel grateful that I was able to play a full game and it was good to be back out there and get real game experience, it’s been so long.”
He did not play kickoff this time around in IU’s season opener, but he recorded his first catch on Indiana’s third offensive play of the game. He made it past the first play, and his first catch went for four yards.
“That was huge,” Westbrook said of his early grab. “You’re not sitting there waiting and wondering when your opportunity is going to come. It came pretty early, I caught it. It wasn’t anything big, but it released some of those nerves and it let me play loose.”
Westbrook finished with five catches for 33 yards in the win at FIU. It wasn’t anything special, but for Westbrook, it was a whole lot better than his 2017. The 6-foot-3, 215 pound receiver is Indiana’s most proven wideout — and will likely only benefit with the emergence of Donavan Hale against FIU. Between two (or three) quarterbacks and a bevy of receivers, Westbrook should have plenty of opportunities for big plays. In 2016, he led the Big Ten with seven receptions over 40 yards.
With gunslinging true freshman Michael Penix and Peyton Ramsey’s supposed arm strength improvement, Westbrook figures to be given chances deep — starting Saturday night in the home opener against Virginia.
“After the first catch, the whole ‘I haven’t played in two years’ thing went away. There was an odd feeling, playing against someone else. After that first catch, everything was released and I felt that monkey get off my back. I wasn’t worried about anything with my knee, just ready to play.”
Virginia features a rather steady secondary, one that will be tested with the likes of Westbrook, Hale, and slot options Luke Timian, Whop Philyor, and Reese Taylor. The Cavaliers’ top cornerback is Tim Harris, a sixth-year senior that has been with the program since 2013. There’s a wealth of experience for Virginia back there, and its secondary will be significantly more challenging than the one Indiana faced in Miami. But Westbrook doesn’t really care who the opponent is, as long as he’s healthy and playing.
“It was definitely excitement,” Westbrook said of the season opener. “It was a little nervous, not because I was worried that I’d get hurt, but nervous because it’s been a while since I’ve done this. But definitely more excited than anything, just to be able to play. I’m grateful.”