Given all the talk about Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes and his widely broadcast protest about paying athletes, it was no surprise that one Big Ten athletic trainer I spoke with this week pointed out that he and his team are a hidden benefit that athletes often take for granted.
Big Ten universities have world-class facilities and world-class medical staffs, now more than ever before. It’s a lot more than tape and ice bags in the modern college training room. Cold lasers, cryotherapy, handheld ultrasound imaging and more are all available to the athletes as part of their care.
It’s a good investment, though there’s still a long way for some programs to go. Injuries are a big part of talent management in college football, so let’s take a look at the most significant situations around the conference:
The Huskers have been winning despite a spate of injuries. Usually that speaks to depth, but right now, there’s a clear differentiation going down the Nebraska depth chart. That the team keeps winning speaks more to execution and discipline. But with the schedule about to take a turn for the much harder, a bit more health would help.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong needs to make it through the Purdue game on Saturday without getting more banged up, as does pretty much everyone else. With coach Darrell Hazell out at Purdue, it’s easy to see a scenario in which the Huskers try to get up early and get their starters on the bench. The key is winning and not taking any major steps back.
The next big hope is that wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp can return for the Wisconsin-Ohio State back-to-back gauntlet. His record chase aside, the team isn’t likely to push him back this week. A back injury such as Westerkamp’s can recur easily, so the team will need to be as careful as it can with him and his routes once he is back in the lineup.
How a medical staff handles these next two weeks can make the difference for a team trying to win a division, compete for a Big Ten championship and push toward a big bowl payoff. Mike Riley has Nebraska in great position, but injuries can derail even the best programs.
Mitchell Leidner, QB, Minnesota
Concussions are impossible to read. We only know in retrospect how serious they were, so guessing when Mitchell Leidner will be back is folly. There’s no indication that there’s worry this will go much longer than typical. But, then again, the schedule often affects the treatment of injuries, and with Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue the next three weeks, there’s no huge rush to get Leidner back. Yes, anything can happen. And yes, Leidner is a better option than Conor Rhoda, who really wasn’t asked to do much in his start last weekend against Maryland.
Once Leidner is cleared through the concussion protocol, there’s a question of balancing the team’s need for at least two more wins with keeping Leidner healthy for the tougher three games in November, when Minnesota’s bowl fortunes will be determined. But my guess is that Leidner will be back in the game once he’s cleared. We’ll check back in on this situation here at Land of 10 on Friday.
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois
While the Dallas Cowboys debate Dak Prescott vs. Tony Romo, Lovie Smith has his own quarterback controversy in Champaign. Chayce Crouch subbed in for Wes Lunt while Lunt recovered from a back strain suffered during the Purdue game on Oct. 8. He was good enough to give Smith his first conference win, and with much tougher competition coming, Smith is going to have to decide who gives his team the best chance. That might not be either, honestly.
Lunt’s back strain should clear up in time to have a full week of practice given where he was last week, but back injuries like this often recur and have setbacks. If Lunt is back at practice and makes it through as expected, he’ll be available. But it’s impossible to say which way Smith is leaning right now. My guess is that we’ll see both quarterbacks in the game. If Crouch can establish himself as the future, it will make things interesting for Jeff George Jr, a high.ly recruited freshman.
George Kittle, TE, Iowa
One of the biggest tells you’ll see on a sideline is ice. Players that get wrapped up in ice are often done for the day, because ice tightens up the soft tissue and reduces blood flow. Once George Kittle’s knee was iced, it was all but a lock that his day was done. I’m not sure how much the medical staff was looking forward to this week’s game against Wisconsin, but having Kittle is key. Assuming his knee injury is minor, it will be the first game where Kittle and Jon Wisnieski are both available for quarterback C.J. Beathard. That two-TE look was expected to be a weapon this year, but injuries prevented it. Kittle should be able to play this weekend.