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Inside JerShon Cobb's fight to stay healthy

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JerShon Cobb has spent four years at Northwestern. During three of those four, his body has, time and time again, betrayed him. But coming off meniscus surgery and going into his senior year, there are multiple reasons to believe that this is the year -- the year that Cobb finally stays healthy.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

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***

JerShon Cobb is no stranger to injury. It's an unfortunate truth.

Ever since the highly-touted guard arrived in Evanston in 2010, his basketball career has been a story of what could have been. His undoubtedly tremendous talent has been inhibited by injury and suspension. His potential remains unfulfilled.

"We've had some ups and downs," assistant director of sports performance Mike Schweigert says resignedly. "We've had some ups and downs."

The ups and downs began immediately for Cobb from the outset of his freshman year at Northwestern. A hip injury hampered him throughout the season and caused him to miss seven games, and then required offseason surgery.

Coming off the surgery in 2011/12, Cobb struggled to get back to his normal self. He practiced and played only intermittently, missing twelve games and participating in others at less than full strength. This time around, tendonitis in his knee and pain throughout his leg were the culprits.

The story of last season was nothing new to Cobb; it's a tale with which he's become all too familiar. Heading into his senior year, he knows that the plot has to change.

Then, prior to the 2012-13 season, head coach Bill Carmody announced that Cobb would be suspended for the entire campaign, reportedly for academic reasons.

Going into last season, everything seemed to be falling into place. Cobb had a fresh start. He was back from suspension, had a clean bill of health, and figured to be a key player for new coach Chris Collins in his first season.

But as the year wore on, Cobb's body wore down. First came an ankle injury in December that cost him two contests. Then, throughout the latter half of conference play, his knee began to bother him. It was an ailment through which he was able to play, but it was a significant hindrance. And finally, after sustaining a foot injury against Ohio State, he was shut down for the remainder of the season.

So, three years of eligibility consumed, three seasons marred by injury. And that's the disconcerting thing. The story of last season was nothing new to Cobb; it's a tale with which he's become all too familiar. Heading into his senior year, he knows that the plot has to change.

So does his coach. "When we had JerShon [last year], we were a pretty good team," Collins says. "When he went down, it really hurt us."

But what can he or they do to alter it? Or, perhaps, a more frightening rephrasing of the question: Can they even do anything?

***

As for the latter of the two questions, Cobb isn't sure. He even admits to feeling helpless at times. But if the former is the pertinent one, answers are aplenty. And there's a wide range of them.

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Primarily, of course, there is the physical side of things. Cobb has worked with doctors, physical therapists, athletic trainers and Schweigert, who is in charge of the team's strength and conditioning regiments, in an attempt to get his body in peak condition. That means everything from traditional rehab, to strength training, to advanced upper body conditioning to anti-gravity pool exercises.

But these are all part of what Schweigert calls a "normal progression." So Cobb hasn't stopped there. Another big focus of his has been his diet.

Back in June, for the first time, Northwestern hired a full-time sports dietician, Katie Knappenberger, to work with athletes on nutrition and body supplementation. It's a move concurrent with the new wave of sports science that is becoming increasingly prevalent in professional and college athletics.

Cobb believes that the new approaches to meals and his diet are making a discernable difference. "Katie is great," he says. "I think she's really giving us an edge."

"I wouldn't say I wasn't taking [strength and conditioning] seriously enough. But I'd say I didn't take some steps that I could've taken to prevent stuff." -JerShon Cobb

In fact, Cobb's newfound attention to what he puts in his body might provide insight into what has gone wrong for him in the past. It's not that a faulty diet has been the reason for his multitude of injuries; it's that in previous years, he was more oblivious to what he needed to do to prevent them.

In high school, Cobb confesses, strength and conditioning programs like those through which Schweigert puts him were nearly non-existent. "Our practices were pretty tough [in high school]," he says, "but it wasn't anything compared to now." The same can be said for nutrition guidelines, and in general, expectations for focus and dedication.

"It was a shock," Cobb says of the transition to college basketball. "How much we had to do in the weight room, on the court, how much we had to do in class, everything was a shock."

More than anything else, perhaps it's that shock that Cobb's injury issues can be attributed to. Perhaps Cobb wasn't prepared to take the proactive approach to building his body that the college game necessitates, and as a result, his body wasn't prepared for the grind.

"I wouldn't say I wasn't taking [strength and conditioning] seriously enough," Cobb says looking back on his years as an underclassman. "But I'd say I didn't take some steps that I could've taken to prevent stuff."

But if it was that shock and that ill-preparedness that were major causes of the trips to the sideline and the training room, there's also reason to believe that this year could be different; that Cobb could successfully alter the plot.

"There's a series of events that a lot of athletes go through on the collegiate level," Schweigert says, referencing Cobb's period of adaptation early in his career, "where you're just not as aware of things as you are when you've gone through it a bit. I think those things happened for JerShon this summer."

Collins concurs. "I think he's been better taking care of himself," the second-year head coach says. "With his nutrition, with his weightlifting, with his strength and conditioning, getting rest -- all those things help. Sometimes getting hurt is freak accidents, but I think he's been more mature with how he's taken care of himself."

"This summer is the most focused JerShon has been since he's been here." -Mike Schweigert

"This summer is the most focused JerShon has been since he's been here," Schweigert continues, now with a great deal of confidence. "He knew that he had to deal with something, and he had to work very hard to come back from it. Some players going through some of that stuff, they probably would've called it quits, but he's worked hard to get himself back into the shape he needs to be in to be a player."

When asked about his fellow captain, Tre Demps echoes the thoughts of Schweigert and Collins. He can't help but repeat the word "hungry."

"He seems real confident about himself right now," Demps says. "Where his mind is at, and how hungry he is, and just talking to him and seeing his body language, there's something different about him."

Whether "different" equals "better" remains to be seen. But in Cobb's situation, it's an imperative first step to rewriting the script of his so-far injury-riddled career at Northwestern.

***

Is JerShon Cobb injury prone?

Nobody, not even Schweigert, an expert on the body, knows for sure.

Cobb's history, coupled with logic, would seem to suggest that he is. The 6-foot-5 guard seems to be sidelined more often than not, and it's the consistency with which he's banged up that is most worrying.

But with any injury, there is undoubtedly an element of luck - or a lack thereof - involved too.

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"Most major injuries are not preventable," Schweigert says. "You can do your best to minimize those things, but if those things are going to happen, they're probably going to happen."

Schweigert makes an important distinction though. "There's two things," he says. "There's the actual breakdown of the body. And then there's just freak things that happen in play."

But the question for Cobb is, which category do most of his issues - the hip and knee tendinitis, the fractured foot, the torn meniscus - belong in? As Collins hinted at (above), it's probably a mixed bag.

The tendinitis would be considered a breakdown of the body. Even the torn meniscus, which Cobb played through, could be classified as such. The foot though, which ended his season, would probably be described as more of an outlier.

But the key to Cobb's problems is that they're likely not isolated incidents. The body is an intricate, connected unit, and one injury can lead to the next.

"A lot of times what happen is, if somebody gets injured in one area, then a lot of times there's a compensation," Schweigert says. "For instance, [Cobb] hurt his hip; well there's a good probability that because of his hip injury and surgery, something else for a while had to take up the slack.

"It happens a lot with ankles and knees, where you're favoring one side and it puts a little more stress on the other. We work our best to minimize those things, but sometimes it just happens."

It's this knock-on effect that Cobb has been particularly vulnerable to. And it's also why the offseason strength training is so important. Once one muscle or joint falls behind, the rest follow. Weakness in one part of his body, particularly his lower body, puts more stress on another part of his body. And it's that added stress with which he's been unable to cope.

Schweigert admits that Cobb is probably more prone to these bodily breakdowns than other athletes. "He's had a tough road from that standpoint," Schweigert says.

But Cobb is determined to prove that he can stay on the court. "It's one of my goals this year, not missing any games," he says. And that's why that aforementioned hunger and focus have become so apparent.

***

It's not going to be easy.

In fact, it hasn't been easy. JerShon Cobb's summer was one of exertion and struggle.

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Cobb went under the knife in late March, shortly after the end of Northwestern's season, for a repair of his meniscus.

His road back began on crutches, and continued with a brace on his knee for roughly six weeks. It wasn't until late May or early June that Cobb could even start jogging. As he progressed, leg strength and stability became the focuses, with a particular emphasis on the quadriceps muscle.

As with any rehabilitation process, the progress was not linear. Instead, it mirrored Cobb's career. There were ups and downs. And as with any rehabilitation process, the hurdles were both physical and mental.

"It was sore a lot after I would do things," Cobb says. "But knowing that I couldn't do things that I have been doing my whole career, that was tough."

"It's tough to say, ‘yeah, he's ready,' or ‘[no], he's not.' But you trust your process, and have faith in what you do, and hope that things bounce your way." -Mike Schweigert
However, Cobb says he has already cleared those hurdles. Now, with the season opener against Houston Baptist just 17 days away, he has been fully cleared to play, and says he feels 100 percent. But Collins and Schweigert know that to treat him as such would be a mistake.

"With an injury like that, it's managing the volume," Schweigert says. "Is [Cobb] going to go every rep? No. Are there days he will? Yes. But it's a communication process between the player, the athletic training staff, myself, and the coaches to manage that and give him the best chance to make it through the season."

Collins also seems to imply that he has been and is planning on taking things slow with his senior guard. He's even been using another player he's been around recently as a point of comparison.

"We use [Derrick] Rose as an example," Collins says, referring to the Bulls guard who had the same meniscus surgery as Cobb. "[Rose] is just starting to come back into his own after his surgery. JerShon is still shaking off the rust [too]."

The idea of keeping the reigns on his return, perhaps unnecessarily as a precaution, isn't exactly something Cobb welcomes with open arms. As any player would, Cobb wants to be on the floor, liberated and unrestrained. But in the end, he and Collins share a common goal.

"We need to keep him on the floor," Collins says matter-of-factly. "Our goal is to have him suited up and healthy and ready to go every game this season."

That likely will mean a decrease in minutes. Cobb's playing time rose astronomically last year, from 20.4 minutes per game in 2011/12 to 33.6 in his first season under Collins. And they both know that that type of heavy workload can't be sustained. But with increased backcourt depth, Collins thinks such reliance on Cobb won't be necessary.

So will all of this - the offseason strength training, the new diet, the renewed focus, and the curtailed workload - enable Cobb to finally put together the senior season that Collins, Schweigert and others know he is capable of? Is this the year he finally stays healthy?

"It's tough to say, ‘yeah, he's ready,' or ‘[no], he's not,'" Schweigert explains. "But you trust your process, and have faith in what you do, and hope that things bounce your way."