Up until the final reps of Sunday afternoon's practice, NIU was as healthy as it has been since the beginning of spring.
Defensive ends Sean Progar and Alan Baxter were back on the field for the first time in weeks. Running back Cameron Bell returned and got a couple carries. There were a lot of things for coach Dave Doeren to be pleased with.
Then tight end Jason Schepler caught a third-down pass off a drag route and was talked downfield from the side and below the waste.
Clutching his knee, it was obvious Schepler was in severe pain. Trainers were immediately at his side. After a few moments he was helped – and later carted – off the field.
The injury's severity, and his status short term and long term, is unknonwn.
"He was catching the ball and running outside," Doeren said. "One of the (defensive backs) low tackled him, basically, and his leg got caught underneath him. ... Hopefully he'll be OK."
On the positive side, Progar's return helps solidify a defensive line that may have been hit harder with injuries than any other position group. Progar, named to the all-MAC first team in 2010, said he had a high ankle sprain and strained the muscles on the inside of his foot.
"It felt ridiculously good," Progar said when asked how good it felt to return. "I've been waiting two weeks now, and unfortunately I got injured. But while I was injured, I think I still played a role on the team, helping lead the younger guys and the rest of the (defensive) linemen along with the defense. But there's nothing like playing again. I'm a little rusty, but I'll get there soon."
Progar said he's never been injured before. When teammates saw him put on the red, defensive jersey in the locker room before practice, he said the guys were "pumped up."
"I could go out there and be terrible, and they'd still be pumped up that I'm out there with them," Progar said. "Just because they know I'm going to battle for them, and I'm going to go out there and lead them."
Progar alternated between left and right end, but all of his reps came with the first unit. Baxter anchored the second-team defensive line, likely a testament to how well first-team defensive end Joe Windsor has played this spring.
For all the day's frustrations, Doeren said it was good to see the leader of the Huskies' defensive line back on the field.
"He's confident, swagger, he started a ton of football games here," Doeren said. "When he's in there, he's a calm presence for the guys and a guy they can look to. He wants the pressure of having to make that play."
One player yet to return from injury is cornerback Sean Evans. Doeren said Evans is out with a sprain, and he does not know whether he will return in time for Saturday's spring game.
"I saw a lot of excercises he's doing with coach (Brad) Ohrt (director of sports performance), and he's making a bunch of progress," Doeren said. "It's just a sprain with him, so it's just a matter of when they give him clearance."
– Ryan Wood, email@example.com