SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Raised and purplish, the scar on Tyler Nielsen’s left hand could serve as a map for his career at Iowa.
Appropriately, the scar is purple. Nielsen broke two bones in his hand in Iowa’s 41-31 victory over Northwestern on Oct. 15. He had surgery the next day. He was in uniform for the Hawkeyes’ next game, at Kinnick Stadium against Indiana, but he sat out.
The sprained foot he suffered on the first play at Iowa State in week 2 couldn’t knock him out. Understandably, the broken neck he suffered — well, he actually played through that for two games before a broken vertebrae was discovered — cost him five games last season, his first as a starter at outside linebacker after sitting behind current Indianapolis Colt A.J. Edds for three seasons.
The senior from Humboldt didn’t want a little ol’ broken hand to cost him a minute of playing time. It was just one game — he was back after sitting out Indiana.
“How many scars do I have?” Nielsen said with a laugh after Friday’s Insight Bowl practice. “This is the only good one. I’ll probably be getting a few more.”
Did he say a few more? Hmm, foreshadowing a postseason surgery? Another laugh.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Football is football. I feel pretty good.”
On the field, Nielsen’s senior season has been a bit scarred. The foot injury against Iowa State slowed him. No one will say how much, especially him, but it cost him a step at least.
For the second consecutive season, Iowa linebackers were gouged by injury. Nielsen fought through the foot and hand. Sophomore James Morris suffered a concussion during camp and then a high-ankle sprain against Penn State. He sat out Northwestern and finished as the Hawkeyes’ leading tackler (104).
Sophomore Anthony Hitchens suffered a knee injury sometime before Penn State and so the primary backup wasn’t there, leaving Iowa with linebacker suffering through a high-ankle sprain and a broken hand at different times.
All of Iowa’s linebackers have had to play the three positions at times this season. Nielsen led Iowa with 12 tackles in his first ever start at middle linebacker against Northwestern (and then, of course, he broke his hand).
Sophomore Christian Kirksey started the season on the weakside and finished outside.
“Switching from Mike [middle] to Will [weakside], that’s not bad,” Morris said. “But when you go from inside to outside, it’s totally different positioning. Most of the time, you’re walked out. Your progressions are a lot different and your assignments in pass coverage and on blitzes are totally different.”
In the Insight Bowl, Nielsen said he’ll play middle linebacker, which puts Morris at weakside and Kirksey (healthy all season, knock on wood) outside.
And that’ll be it for Nielsen’s Iowa career, a long wait for a short stay.
“I suppose my career has been like anyone’s who’s come through Iowa,” said Nielsen, who graduated with a business degree last year and is now taking graduate courses. “You sit behind a good player for a few years. You get a chance to go out there and do the best you can.
“You have some ups and downs along with the way, whether it’s injuries or whatever it is. I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to play here and I’m looking forward to one last go around.”
Nielsen will have a shot at the NFL. One, he’s big at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. And, two, he can run, clocking in the mid 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Nielsen could follow the path former Hawkeyes linebacker Jeff Tarpinian took. Tarpinian was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New England Patriots, made the team and worked his way into the starting lineup before being lost for the season with a concussion.
Nielsen and Tarpinian (6-3, 238) are similar size and have similar speed.
“[Nielsen's] ability to play over the tight end or make plays in man or zone coverage in a stack give him a shot to play on the strong side in any system,” writes Chad Reuter, NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst.
And no, the screws and rods keeping Nielsen’s hand together didn’t cause a huge bottle neck of Hawkeyes when the team went through TSA at the Eastern Iowa Airport on Thursday.
“I’m pretty lucky, actually,” Nielsen said. “There’s enough scar tissue and crap over it that it doesn’t set off the alarm. I’m lucky in that aspect. I guess I’m safe.”
Chalk one up for scar tissue.
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