Chris Steuber: Take me back to the 2008 Alamo Bowl. It was late in the fourth quarter against Missouri and you were chasing Chase Daniel. All of a sudden your knee buckled and you were on the ground holding your right knee. It was discovered that you had a torn ACL. I’m sure that was a heartbreaking injury. Prior to kickoff, were you leaning towards entering the 2009 NFL Draft?
Corey Wootton: Definitely; I thought about it and I was leaning towards the side of coming out, but when the injury happened, I thought it was best for me to go back [to Northwestern] for my fifth year. I thought I could rehab, come back and improve my draft stock. I knew if I declared for the 2009 draft with a torn ACL, it would have really affected where I would have been selected.
What’s your nickname: C-Dub.
CS: The toughest part about a torn ACL is the rehabilitation process. What was the biggest obstacle you faced during your rehab?
Wootton: The biggest obstacle was not getting frustrated with myself. Everything that I went through; it was just a frustrating process. I just tried to stay positive about everything no matter how bad a day of rehab turned out to be. I just knew it was going to get better.
CS: The knee got better, and it got better in a hurry; you didn’t miss a game during the 2009 season. Entering the year, what were your expectations?
Wootton: I didn’t expect myself to be 100-percent [in 2009]. I had to be realistic with myself at some point, because a torn ACL can take up to two years to fully recover from. I knew coming back was going to be a journey, but it’s made me a stronger person. The injury really made me appreciate the game of football that much more.
CS: I mentioned that you didn’t miss a game last year, which is absolutely amazing considering when you injured your knee. Did you have any hesitation about returning to the field so soon after suffering such a devastating injury?
Wootton: There definitely was some hesitation at the beginning of the season. Anybody who goes through this injury experiences the same kind of concerns. It’s a devastating injury; you don’t know how it’s going to feel when you come back from it. I had a lot of those thoughts early in the season, but as the season went on, I didn’t think about it at all.
CS: When I studied you on film this past year, compared to your junior year, it was like I was watching a completely different player. Were you 100-percent at any point during the 2009 season?
Wootton: There was no question that I wasn’t 100-percent; you could tell by the film, the way I was moving around. I wasn’t feeling that good until the end of the season and I still wasn’t 100-percent then.
CS: The injury played a huge role on your game statistically – you went from 10 sacks in ’08 to just four sacks in ’09. Despite the low sack total last season, were you happy with all that you accomplished returning to the field as fast as you had?
Wootton: I think scouts, general managers and others in the NFL realized that I wasn’t 100-percent. It’s an injury that takes most people a year to come back from; I came back in five and a half months. I was jogging after four months and I was back on the field and doing everything at five and a half months. I think that tells you something about me right there. It was a tough process, and it’s been tough battling back, but it’s definitely made me a stronger person.
CS: Even though you weren’t 100-percent and didn’t have your best season statistically, your status as one of the best defensive ends was recognized when you were invited to the Senior Bowl. Did the health of your knee play a factor in your decision to decline your invitation to the Senior Bowl?
Wootton: I just felt like it was best for me to stick to the training that I was on instead of attending the Senior Bowl, because I didn’t have much of an offseason leading into the 2009 year; I didn’t have a chance to strengthen my leg properly going into my senior year. The lack of strength training resulted in me not having the kind of pop and explosiveness that I had during my junior season. I wanted to get that burst back, and I felt sticking with my training was more beneficial than attending the Senior Bowl.
CS: How do you feel right now; are you 100-percent or do you have more work to do?
Wootton: I feel like I have more work to do, but I’m feeling very good. I think at the Combine I’ll show people that I’m a lot better, more explosive and a lot quicker than I was during the season.
CS: Will you participate in all of the drills at the Scouting Combine?
Wootton: Yes, I’m doing everything.
CS: Is there a player in the NFL that you have a relationship with, maybe from your days at Northwestern, that you spoke with about what to expect at the Scouting Combine?
Wootton: Oh definitely, Barry Cofield. He’s a defensive tackle for the New York Giants, and he played with me at Northwestern. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and he kind of mentored me along during my freshman year. He taught me a lot about football and life. I talk to him every couple of weeks, and he was talking with me about the Combine last week. He just said to relax, have fun and pretend it’s just another workout. But, he said it’s important to have fun.
CS: Is there one aspect of the Combine you’re looking forward to the most, so you can show scouts the kind of player that you are?
Wootton: The drills. I want to show teams how I move around without my brace. When the season ended this year, I took my brace off. I really felt like the brace affected me on the field; wearing a brace doesn’t allow you to be as athletic and limits your mobility. I believe I’ll be able to move around a lot better, and scouts will be able to see that at the Combine. I think it will help me a lot to show them my athleticism, because I’ve heard that there are teams that like me as a 3-4 linebacker.
CS: At Northwestern, you played linebacker occasionally, but will you feel comfortable if you’re asked to switch to linebacker full-time at the next level?
Wootton: Yes, I’ve done that [dropping back] quite a few times; I have four interceptions in my career. A 3-4 linebacker is where you just drop into the flat; there’s no man-to-man coverage. It wouldn’t be like I had to defend a running back one-on-one or anything like that. It’s a pretty simple philosophy for the most part.
CS: Not attending the Senior Bowl and being heavily involved in training, have you had a chance to speak with any NFL teams at this point?
Wootton: I haven’t talked with any teams so far to be honest with you. I’ve just tried to stay focused on my training and get ready for everything that goes on at the Combine.
CS: The interview process at the Combine can be grueling and overwhelming at times. If you had 20 – 30 seconds to describe Corey Wootton as a person and a player, what would you say, and how confident are you with your ability during chalk talk sessions?
Wootton: I feel like I’ve had great coaching at Northwestern, and I feel like I have a very good understanding of the schemes and philosophies of defensive football. I think those sessions will be good for me. I would describe myself as a motivated, hardworking guy, who’s dedicated to giving everything that he has to his team. I’m worth the investment that a team will place in me and will reward them in the end. I’ll do everything in my power to represent the team and myself in a positive manner.
CS: Is there a team at the Combine that you’re most looking forward to meeting with; possibly the team you grew up rooting for?
Wootton: I’m excited for them all, but I’m looking forward to meeting with the Jets and Giants the most. They’re the teams in my backyard. I grew up in Rutherford, and Giants Stadium is in East Rutherford, right down the street from where I grew up. It’s always been a dream of mine to play there, so that would be amazing if I could end up there. It would be awesome to talk to both of those teams at the Combine.
CS: The Jets are an intriguing fit for you since they run a 3-4, and they own a late first round selection. Since you’re projected to be a late first, early second round pick, could you imagine lining up at defensive end for the Jets next year?
Wootton: It’s something that I’ve thought about because of their needs and what I’ve heard from sources. It would be awesome to play for any organization, especially the Jets. I would be honored to play for them.
CS: You’re a unique defender, because of your size and skill set, as well as the versatility you possess. Do you feel like the attributes and intangibles you have make you more attractive to NFL teams?
Wootton: I feel like I can play in any defense at the next level. I’m starting to feel more athletic now; I’m around 275 pounds, which is close to the weight I was at in 2008. I’m also coming closer to the speed I was at before, and I really believe at the Combine that I will show teams that I can fit in any role they need me to play.
CS: What part of your game have you concentrated on the most during your training as your prepare for the Combine this week?
Wootton: Pass rushing. I’m working to become a more complete pass rusher. I’m always working on my technique and going through drills. I’m working with a former D-Lineman in the NFL, Eddie Khayat. He’s come to Northwestern a couple of times to work with me. He’s given me different things to work on to become a more complete player.
CS: Is there a defensive end in the NFL you pattern your game after?
Wootton: A guy that I watch a lot is Mario Williams [Houston Texans]. He’s a guy whose height, size and wingspan are similar to mine. I’ve been trying to study him and work on some things that he does to use his size to his advantage. He’s a great player.
CS: Playing in the Big Ten, you went up against some great offensive linemen. Who was the toughest offensive tackle you faced in your career?
Wootton: There were a few of them. I’d have to say Joe Thomas [former Wisconsin and current Cleveland Browns tackle], Levi Brown [former Penn State and current Arizona Cardinals tackle] and Jake Long [former Michigan and current Miami Dolphins tackle]. Those guys were really impressive in college and they’re doing an amazing job in the NFL.
Wootton: I think he’s a very talented offensive lineman. He’s a big, strong guy. He has really good footwork for his size. I agree, he’ll definitely be in the first round this year; he was one of the best in the country this year.
CS: Bulaga is just one of 53 underclassmen to declare for this year’s draft. The infusion of underclassmen has made this one of the deepest defensive drafts in recent memory. How do you feel about all the underclassmen who declare early; is it a good thing or does it bother you since they take away seniors’ draft positioning?
Wootton: It’s a competition, and you want to compete against the best guys in the nation this time of year. The best guy who fits a scheme of a team will be picked first. If an underclassmen gets picked in front of me, it wasn’t meant to be for me. He was the better player for that scheme.
CS: Do you think it’s fair or unfair that the draft process is viewed as another season and that there are teams who seem to forget about the film you’ve accumulated over your career and judge you on your measurables during this period?
Wootton: I’m excited about that aspect, because I feel really good right now. I’m running well and moving around; I’m just anxious for them to see me. A lot of the evaluations are based on the Combine, I agree with you. But a lot of it is based on your film; at least that’s what I’ve heard. I’m just excited about the opportunity, and I hope that I put some good things on film that they like. I know they will definitely like my film from ’08, and that’s what I’ve heard a majority of teams are looking at, because of my injury situation last year.
CS: It’s still two months away, but how do you envision draft day and the feelings you may have during that weekend?
Wootton: I think it will be crazy, because right now I’ve heard first or second round. I’m anxious to learn where I will fall; first, second or third round. I’m hoping for the best, but you never know what will happen; draft day is unpredictable.
CS: Speaking of the draft being unpredictable, how do you feel about the new structure to the draft with the first round being aired on Thursday night, the second and third rounds on Friday night and the remaining rounds taking place on Saturday afternoon? If you’re not a first round pick, you will have to wait a full 24 hours to hear your name called. Will that drive you crazy?
Wootton: I don’t know if it will make me crazy; but I’m hoping to receive the call on that Thursday - that would be nice. I can’t wait to get that part out of the way because it will symbolize that all of the hard work, time and energy I put in during training, and the work I put into school had paid off. And if I were to say that I was a first rounder, that’s something I always dreamed about. Hopefully, knock on wood, I’ll be able to accomplish that.
CS: The new setup makes it hard to plan a party with your family doesn’t it?
Wootton: [Laughs.] I guess I’ll have my close family over, but I don’t know if I’ll have all of my friends over. They might be a little disappointed if my name doesn’t get called on that first day.
CS: Well the Scouting Combine is your first chance to show scouts you belong in the first round. What are you looking to get out of your experience in Indianapolis?
Wootton: I hope to get a buzz about me. I know my name has been out there as one of the top defensive ends in the class, but I’d like there to be a buzz to ascend me to the top. I really want to improve my stock.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com. You can also now follow Chris Steuber on Twitter.