Back together again (Gameday)

Tania Ganguli

This was supposed to be their year.

Two years ago, Northwestern veterans Loren Howard, LuisCastillo, Barry Cofield and Colby Clark were four underclassmen whodidn’t know what they were doing. This year they were seasonedupperclassmen who could have been one of the best units in the BigTen.

But just when everything started to go right for the Wildcats’defensive line, suddenly everything went wrong.

Howard hurt his ankle in practice before the season evenstarted.

Castillo broke his thumb in the second game of the year and sawlimited playing time for a few weeks.

Then David Thompson, Howard’s replacement, missed a few gamesbecause of a hamstring injury. And Thompson’s replacement, DavidNgene, hurt his knee.

“I’m not sure what we would have done if we had lost any more,”defensive coordinator Greg Colby said.

The unit that was supposed to be the defensive rock looked likeit was crumbling, but the Cats quickly discovered just howadaptable it was. Linebackers masqueraded as defensive ends andlinemen shuffled positions as NU threw together a run defense thatturned out to be stingier than the Cats’ defense before Howard’sinjury.

They found out that they could survive without him if theyneeded to, but they won’t have to anymore. Now that Howard is back– even though coaches still aren’t sure how much he’ll be ablecontribute Saturday against Wisconsin — his teammates can feel hispresence.

“Lo-Jack is back,” linebacker John Pickens said, grinning. Thenhe explained the nickname: “I think it’s because he just jacksfools around. You’ll see a 300-pound lineman get in his way, andhe’ll just toss him.”

Playing by his own rules

After Howard had surgery in September, doctors told him to usecrutches for four to six weeks. He ditched them four dayslater.

A week later, he started doing squats with his cast on.

“Doctors don’t like me too much because I don’t listen to themvery much,” Howard said. “They have charts and diagrams on how longthings take to heal, but I’m an exceptional healer.”

As far as anybody could tell, Howard was out for the season. Itseemed to coach Randy Walker and others around the program that,despite his diagnosis, Howard never doubted he would be back thisseason.

But his closest friends knew better.

“He didn’t think he had a chance,” Castillo said. “We’d besitting around trying to convince him to come back, and he’d say,’Dude I can’t. I hurt too much.'”

It hurt even more for Howard to sit on the bench when ArizonaState came to Evanston. More than two dozen of the Arizona native’sfamily and friends came to watch the Sun Devils beat the Cats, butnone of them got to see Howard play.

Watching from the sidelines he began plotting his comeback.

“I just made a decision one day that I’m going to come backafter the bye week,” Howard said.

He approached rehab with the same intensity and focus he devotesto eating and football. He worked out on his own twice a day, sixdays a week, doing anything that didn’t cause any pain. He did allhe could to prevent atrophy in his ankle so nothing would hold himback once doctors cleared him to play.

“Football’s so important to me,” Howard said. “It was likesomeone took it from me.”

filling the void

While Howard prophesied a comeback, Castillo broke his thumb. Heleft the Arizona State game and saw limited action for a while. Afew weeks later, he still had a cast on his hand, but didn’t missany games and quickly returned to full strength. He waved off aquestion about his injury, saying that he had just broken his thumbin a couple places.

Defensive coordinator Greg Colby said the multitude of injuriessometimes made his players “gun-shy,” but Castillo saw playerstrying to overcompensate for fallen teammates. Defensive line coachEric Washington set out to plug the gaping hole left by Howard’sabsence.

“You don’t necessarily replace the talent that Loren Howardbrings to the table,” Washington said. “But you try to marshall thecreative abilities of the other guys, and you accelerate thedevelopment and growth of some other guys, and you just go.”

But when Thompson and Ngene got injured as well, the coaches hadto get creative.

“We kind of had to jury-rig things a little bit and get guyssome rest in probably as difficult and unconventional ways as wecould,” Walker said. “It probably seemed like we were running guysin and out a lot because we were just trying to make it work.”

Cofield and Clark are the only starting linemen who remainedessentially unscathed, and several players pointed to theirdependability as inspiration during the tumultuous year.

By the start of the Big Ten season, Cofield said, the line wascomfortable in the ever-shifting system. It wasn’t enough to stopMinnesota’s explosive running backs, but Cats are allowing 131rushing yards per game this year compared to an average of 164.1last year.

“The unknown became the known,” Washington said. “They began tobuild confidence. Now you can ask any one of them to do any thingand they can do it.”

Different means, similar ends

Howard and Castillo’s talent and on-field competitive natureshave converged, but the paths the two standouts took to get thereare miles apart.

Washington called Castillo more analytical, then laughed beforecalling Howard a fanatical competitor.

Walker characterized it more succinctly: “Luis is a little bitmore laid back, less overflowing,” he said. “Loren’s overflowing.Luis kind of stays in the cup.”

Castillo looks back on his first year in the Big Ten anddubiously calls it a learning experience. But nothing about hisdemeanor even hints he would want to go through it again.

“I didn’t think I was that bad, but I got my butt kicked. It wasa terrible experience some times,” Castillo said. “Sometimes you’reout there and you don’t want to play anymore, you’re getting beatup so badly.”

The shuffling coaches had to do with Castillo this season taughtthem new things about him.

“He was a really smart intelligent player, and we found out howversatile he is,” Washington said.

This year the senior has recorded 29 solo tackles — five forloss — one sack when he pinned Ohio State quarterback JustinZwick.

“When Loren came in he was very strong, but Luis has gotten verystrong,” Colby said. “Loren came in at a real high level, and Luiswasn’t at the level he’s at now until the last year and ahalf.”

Castillo just recently has been referred to as an NFL prospect,but Howard has had that recognition since the beginning of hiscareer.

He might not be ready to play a full game on Saturday, butCastillo said just Howard’s presence will help his teammates.

“It lets me know I don’t have to worry about that whole side ofthe field because he’s got it,” Castillo said. “They’re not goingto beat him.”

No matter how much progress they made without their prizeddefensive end, clearly the Cats missed him.

At 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, with 29.5 tackles for loss and eightsacks over his career — it’d be hard not to.

Contact Tania Ganguli at [email protected].