By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
Matt Lengel had high hopes heading into last season.
And with good reason.
The tight end had posted career-highs for catches (14) and touchdowns (two) in 2011 and was poised to have a breakout year for a team that was the preseason pick to win the Ohio Valley Conference title.
Then, everything changed.
On the first offensive series of EKU’s season-opener last year against Purdue, Lengel went to the turf.
He tore the ACL in his right knee and also suffered a partial tear of his MCL and his meniscus.
At that point, his season was already over.
“You hate that for the kid,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “Your heart goes out to him. You know how hard he works, then to get hurt in the first series of the game, your feel for them.”
Lengel had surgery two weeks later (Sept. 19) and is still recovering.
But, the 6-foot-7, 264-pound senior tight end is already back on the field and back in pads. Lengel is going through spring practice with the Colonels, even though he is not taking part in any contact drills.
“It’s just an everyday thing,” Lengel said. “I just do what (EKU athletic trainer) Tim Pike tells me to do and listen to my body. That’s the most important thing. It’s been such a long process that now I can tell at the end of a rehab session if I need to ice it or if I need to get on the step machine. It takes a while.”
The process has been slow and difficult at times.
But, he’s not gone through it alone.
Former Madison Central standout Patrick Ford suffered a similar injury Sept. 29 at UT-Martin. The tight end and the offensive lineman have leaned on each other during their recovery — which has been very beneficial for both of them.
“We’ve gone through the whole rehab process together and we’ve talked about it,” Lengel said. “The most important thing is to have bad days and have moments where you feel like it’s going to give out and then you realize its not. Then you know it’s going to be OK. You walked away from those scary moments with more confidence.”
Because of those moments, Lengel has had the confidence to step back on the field this spring, just six months after his surgery.
Even though he is limited as to what he can do, the senior is just happy to back in uniform.
“I can do blocking drills, pass-setting drills and run routes,” Lengel said Tuesday. “Today was the worst day, just because it got really sore. It just feels good to be out here.”
Lengel will not go through contact drills until the Colonels open training camp this summer.
Still, the coaching staff expects him to make a full recovery and be ready for EKU’s season opener, which is scheduled for Aug. 29 against Robert Morris at Roy Kidd Stadium.
“He will be fine,” Hood said of Lengel. “We aren’t worried about him being ready.”
The EKU coaching staff is still working on getting Lengel an extra year of eligibility. The tight end took a redshirt season at Northeastern in 2009, but he transferred the following spring after the school dropped its football program.
Considering the circumstances, Hood believes there is a realistic chance Lengel could get a waver from the NCAA and be able to play one additional season.
“The basic rule is that when you get redshirted, that’s your choice,” Hood said. “You’ve got five years to play four seasons. If you get hurt in those other four years, they are not going to give you another year because you choose to reshirt. But, where we think we have a case is that we weren’t the ones who decided to redshirt him. It was Northeastern and they dropped football.”
Either way, Lengel is just anxious to get back on the field and he is counting down the days to the season opener.
“It wasn’t fun,” Lengel said of last season. “I have a lot built up for my senior year. But, once it happens, there’s nothing you can do but put your nose to the grindstone.”