The Journal Gazette
Monday, September 12, 2016 10:10 pm

Indiana receiver bursts into spotlight

Alex McCarthy | For The Journal Gazette

At first, Nick Westbrook thought the pass was overthrown.

The sophomore wide receiver had gotten behind Ball State defensive back Marc Walton and IU junior quarterback Richard Lagow launched a pass toward the end zone. Westbrook thought it was too long, but realized he had a chance at it as it kept carrying.

"The ball was in the air for so long," Westbrook said. "The wind was taking it so many different ways."

Westbrook thought he was going to have to make the catch over his left shoulder, but at the last moment he realized that the wind was taking it to his right. He dived forward, fully extending his arms, snaring the ball with his fingertips and pulling it in. He slid into the end zone as he secured the ball, making for a 43-yard touchdown catch.

If it hadn’t been clear before, that play announced loud and clear that Westbrook is ready to be one of IU’s go-to receivers. Later in the game, he made another impressive play, taking a screen pass 79 yards for a score, making for a stat line that included three catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.

IU coaches were always high on Westbrook, but he’s been thrust into a much larger role than expected due to the absence of Simmie Cobbs, who racked up more than 1,000 receiving yards last year, was suspended during IU’s season opener against FIU, and severely injured his ankle on the first play of the game against Ball State.

Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson said Cobbs’ injury is "probably going to require surgery," and could cost Cobbs the season. Westbrook has already taken advantage of the opportunity for playing time, but said he wishes the situation were different.

"It was unfortunate having him going down, having me having the success I did on having him go down," Westbrook said. "Coach always says, ‘Next guy up.’ He always emphasizes that, ‘next guy up.’ Someone’s always got to be there and ready whenever somebody goes down, somebody’s hurt, anything like that."

As a true freshman last year, Westbrook caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. He has already far surpassed those totals in just two games, catching nine passes for 203 yards and the two touchdowns (he leads the team in all three categories).

Though IU has leaned heavily on the run through two games, it looks as though the IU coaching staff is starting to put more trust in Lagow and his arm. He aired it out more against Ball State than he did at FIU, and seemed to look at Westbrook more often than anybody else down the field.

Westbrook said this offseason was a bit of a challenge due to IU’s uncertain situation at quarterback. With Nate Sudfeld gone to the NFL, Lagow had to compete against juniors Zander Diamont and Danny Cameron before earning the job outright. Consequently, Westbrook and his fellow receivers had to try and develop a rapport with three quarterbacks until it was clear that Lagow was going to be the starter.

Since Lagow took control of the position, he and Westbrook have grown close, and Lagow thinks highly of Westbrook.

"He’s a heck of a player," Lagow said. "He makes amazing plays. He played great, there’s not much to it. He has things to clean up, just like I do and just like everybody else does, but he had a great game."

Wilson also has spoken well of Westbrook, mentioning after Saturday’s game that Westbrook played with more physicality Saturday than he did in the season opener. Wilson said he wants to see more consistency and maturity out of the sophomore, but said he thinks that both Westbrook and sophomore wideout Donavan Hale are both as good as Cobbs, and IU shouldn’t suffer too much of a drop off.

Both Westbrook (6-foot-3) and Hale (6-4) give Lagow big targets on the outside, just like the 6-4 Cobbs. Lagow said the depth on IU’s offense was one of the attractive aspects of this offense, and that he trusts Westbrook in particular to fill Cobbs’ shoes without any kind of a dropoff.

"If one guy goes down at any position, I believe that the next guy’s going to come in and be just as effective," Lagow said. "That goes for every position. My position, receiver, linemen, anything. We have an amazing team with a lot of depth."

Freshman earns Big Ten honor

True freshman Marcelino Ball was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his effort against Ball State. Ball has started both games at husky, the new hybrid linebacker/safety position in IU’s 4-2-5 defense, and is tied for the team lead with 13 tackles through two games. Against Ball State, the 17-year-old Georgia native tied for the team lead with eight tackles and made his first career interception in the second quarter.

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