Dunning not done yet, returns to practice after year-long injury

ISU redshirt sophomore Sam Richardson readies his offensive line during the Cyclones 31-30 loss to the Texas Longhorns on Oct. 3 at Jack Trice Stadium.

Max Dible

Nine days ago, Jacob Dunning “took the training wheels off.”

After that, just like a kid taking his first unassisted spin around the block, it was all smiles and butterflies for the ISU offensive lineman, who could only marvel at how far he’d come.

“It was a bunch of nerves,” Dunning said, adding he was worried more about his assignments than his health. “I could get out there and physically do it, but knowing the plays, actually being on the field and running them, not just seeing them on film [was the concern].”

Dunning stepped onto the football field Sept. 21 as a full-practice participant — his first true football venture in more than a year since rupturing his patella tendon in a win against Iowa in 2014.

It took a moment to adjust, and to remember just how distant and impossible this moment seemed after he was sidelined at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“We went in the training room,” Dunning recalled. “I sat on the table.”

“Well, you completely ruptured your tendon,” team orthopedist Dr. Thomas Greenwald told Dunning flatly. “It’s going to be about a year recovery, so we’ll talk surgery soon.”

Three days later, the time for talk was through, as was the time for hesitation. Dunning was on another table, but this time under the knife — the first hurdle in a long and arduous path back to the field of play; a road lined persistently with mile markers of uncertainty.

“I don’t think he was fine. I don’t know if anybody would be fine,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “That’s a long time. That’s hard. [A] long time away from your teammates, and you’re not feeling much a part of the team when you’re standing there in that situation.

“We’re just happy he’s back. There was an equal chance he wasn’t ever going to be able to play again.”

That was never a possibility Dunning fully entertained — at least insofar as he never began to contemplate alternative plans — but the notion that he may never return to football remained real all the same, lingering in the back of his mind for much of his initial rehab track.

For three months after surgery, Dunning still questioned whether he would be able to remake himself into the player he’d once been. Down on himself and depressed at the notion, Dunning withdrew somewhat from the team — not to wallow in pity, but instead to help both himself and his teammates remain focused.

And Dunning never stopped pushing to keep pace, improving wherever he could.

“Initially, I think I kind of took myself a way a little bit because I felt like I was a bit of a distraction,” Dunning admitted. “But slowly getting in the meeting rooms, I was just trying to focus on the learning aspect of it and that helped me a lot — just focusing on getting it back mentally so when it was time to be back on the field, I was 100 percent.”

Dunning beheld the first glimmer of light at the end of his year-long tunnel about halfway through his stint in rehab.

Every four to six weeks, he would undergo a number of tests on his leg, testing everything from strength to range of mobility. Dunning was submitted to the testing five or six times throughout the process, and it was with the third test that hope resurfaced.

The motion in his knee and the strength there were both beginning to show. It was then that Dunning’s uncertainty ended, and he began to watch the clock tick away the days until his return, all the while with that date in his head.

Sept. 13. One year.

“[I looked at it] as a day to come back from,” Dunning said. “I knew it was coming. They had said give or take a year recovery, so that’s [where] I was on track mentally.”

It was slightly longer than a year before Dunning made his on-field debut, but it was well worth the wait, and the butterflies. The offensive lineman said he hadn’t been so nervous since the first time he took the field as a Cyclone against Kansas State two seasons ago.

But those nerves wouldn’t last long.

“That first play; that first play back in [the nerves dissipated],” Dunning said. “I think that’s all it took. That’s all it normally takes is just going head to head with someone right off the bat.”

It will take a bit more, however, until Dunning is game ready; before he is primed to aid a shallow offensive line that can use all the help it can get.

Injured guard Daniel Burton returned against Toledo for his first action of the year two weeks ago, and Iowa State’s offensive front played considerably better in the run game, paving the way for 207 rushing yards.

The Cyclones mustered only 140 total rushing yards in their first two games combined against Northern Iowa and Iowa.

However, Iowa State has allowed at least four sacks in every game this season. The offensive line has surrendered 14 sacks thus far in 2015, five of which came against Toledo after Burton’s return.

That’s something Dunning, a tackle with long arms and good footwork can help with, if he can get on the field. But Rhoads is not overly optimistic about how quickly Dunning can become game ready.

“He’s a year behind now because the leg strength development. It hasn’t taken place in the last year because he hasn’t been able to do those kinds of lifts.” Rhoads explained. “But I don’t know why a year from now he can’t be the player that we recruited him to be.”

But not everyone shares Rhoads’ conservative view on the matter.

“He’s still rusty. He’s got some work to do, but we’re hoping here not too far down the road that he can help us because he can do some things that we need,” said ISU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino. “He’s quick with his hands, he’s got a good punch to him as they say, he can move around a little bit. We could use him. We could use his help.”

Dunning said after his first day back at practice, ISU offensive line coach Brandon Blaney told him him he was much further along than Blaney had expected, and Dunning agreed.

While Dunning is still viewing his journey back as a day-by-day process, Blaney’s affirmation of his progress is feeding what Dunning said his main goal has been since the 2015 campaign began.

“I want to contribute this year,” Dunning said. “I want to do something on the field.”

For the ISU offensive line, which is getting ready to open Big 12 play this weekend against Kansas, Dunning’s contributions can’t come soon enough.