Engel rehabs, preps for NFL shot

Derrick Engel tore his ACL last year but has recovered relatively quickly.

Former Gophers wide receiver Derrick Engel works out at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on Thursday, March 6, 2014. Engel tore his ACL during practice last fall but has been rehabbing in preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Former Gophers wide receiver Derrick Engel works out at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on Thursday, March 6, 2014. Engel tore his ACL during practice last fall but has been rehabbing in preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft.

by Jack Satzinger

Derrick Engel leapt between two Cornhuskers defenders and reeled in a touchdown, helping the Gophers to a 34-23 win.

“It was definitely a good moment for me and the team,” he said. “It probably was my biggest play of the year.”

It was more like the defining moment of his career — but less than a month later, leaping for another pass ended it.

A couple weeks after the catch against Nebraska, Engel jumped for another pass in practice during the bye week.

He landed awkwardly, and his knee buckled.

“I felt the pop and pretty much knew what happened,” he said. “Then it numbed, and I didn’t feel anything.”

Engel called his father, Joel, later that night and revealed the news.

“I was kind of in shock,” his father said. “I probably took it harder than he did.”

The Gophers took it even harder. Minnesota didn’t score a single offensive touchdown in its final two Big Ten games.

Engel gingerly jogged onto the field six days after the season-ending ACL injury and was honored on Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium.

He doesn’t want that pregame trot to be the last time he suits up for a football game, though.

He’s in the middle of a strict training regimen designed to get him back on the field as soon as possible.

Minneapolis sports agency Selmer Sports Management represents Engel and is helping market the wide receiver to NFL teams.

The 2014 NFL Draft kicks off May 8, and now it’s a mad sprint for the former Gophers wide receiver to be ready for workouts.

Engel said he’s willing to try for the NFL next year if he doesn’t make it this year, but he wants to realize his dream sooner rather than later.

“I want to go at it full speed now,” he said, “and try to vamp my rehab up so I can try to make those dates.”

A road to recovery

A typical day for Engel involves hours of rehab.

The Chaska native’s workouts have been designed primarily by Mark Ellis, a former strength coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

Engel’s knee injury has put restrictions on what he can do with his legs, so Ellis has him focusing on the upper body now.

Engel’s making progress, though. He has a full range of motion back in his knee and started running and doing light agility drills last week.

Ellis, who has worked with Engel for more than six years, is surprised the wide receiver is already running again.

“I’m sitting here in a daze like, ‘Are you kidding me?” Ellis said.

Engel started running on a zero-gravity treadmill two weeks ago to build his endurance back up.

His goal is to be fully cleared by May — just six months after the initial injury.

A reason for that quick recovery is an unconventional approach to rehab.

Ellis said that while a lot of trainers focus on strengthening the quadriceps after a major knee injury, he has Engel trying to bolster his hamstrings.

“It’s one of those unique muscles that, if developed properly, the strength can help support the knee,” he said. “It can help him come back faster.”

While Engel is already starting to run, he’s exercising caution to make sure he doesn’t have any setbacks.

“I definitely have to be careful at this point in time,” he said. “They kind of say it’s a danger zone where I feel good and feel ready to run, but it’s not solid inside my knee yet.”

Finding an NFL market

NFL teams aren’t going to jump at the chance to draft a wide receiver coming off a severe knee injury.

Engel, however, has something working in his favor, assuming he makes a full recovery — his speed.

“I think my speed is my main selling point, getting separation on some guys on film,” Engel said.

At the Gophers’ Pro Day last week, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said looking back at game film is the best way to evaluate talent.

If that holds true, scouts should be mildly impressed with Engel’s play against Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, a projected first-round draft pick. Engel recorded three receptions against him when the teams met in 2012.

Engel said his 40-yard dash time — the NFL standard for speed measurement — is lower than 4.4 seconds. There were only seven players who ran that fast at the 2014 NFL Combine.

“I know I’ve timed that in the past on stopwatches,” Engel said. “And just judging off Brock [Vereen], I know we were pretty close in speed.”

Vereen ran a 4.47 at the combine.

“He’s as fast as anyone,” Vereen said of Engel. “Sometimes speed doesn’t carry over to the field, but his speed you can definitely see in his routes.”

Engel’s agent, James Selmer, has a tough task in marketing the injured wideout, but he’s focusing on more than just speed.

“We’ll market him as a versatile player that can play the slot, wide receiver, and he can handle punts,” Selmer said.

Gaining interest

Engel didn’t participate in Minnesota’s Pro Day last week, but he still had the opportunity to network with scouts from 19 NFL teams.

After Ra’Shede Hageman, Vereen and others finished their workouts, Engel and Selmer stood on the field greeting scouts.

A scout from the Denver Broncos chatted with Engel for a few minutes. Selmer said he’s also reached out to the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

“We found out teams are looking at me and are still interested in wanting to know my timetable,” Engel said. “The Broncos guy was just wondering what my timetable was and kind of giving me advice as far as [how] the whole process worked.”

The Broncos have employed former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker for the past four seasons. Decker dominated at Minnesota, racking up 3,119 yards and 24 touchdowns over his four-year career.

Engel, who didn’t even post 800 receiving yards in his two seasons with the Gophers, doesn’t seem to measure up.

That’s nothing new for him.

Overcoming the odds

When Engel was an upperclassman at Chaska High School, his father knew he had Division I talent.

So the father and son made the trek to multiple recruiting camps across the Midwest.

Engel turned heads with his speed, but didn’t earn a scholarship at the Division I level.

He opted for Division II Winona State and led the team with 39 receptions for 584 yards as a freshman.

That strong performance afforded him the opportunity to join the Gophers as a walk-on.

“A majority said I was crazy for [transferring], but it worked out in my favor,” Engel said.

He sat out the entire 2011 season due to NCAA transfer rules and played in 12 games the following season. Engel broke out in the Gophers’ bowl game in 2012 with four receptions for 108 yards.

That summer, Minnesota rewarded him with a scholarship.

“A lot of people look at him, and he has a baby face,” Ellis said. “They take him at face value, but underneath, he has a burning desire.”

After earning the scholarship, Engel helped put the Gophers on the map with his touchdown catch against Nebraska. Though a similar play may have ended his college career, he said that it won’t impact the way he plays moving forward.

“I won’t let it affect my confidence at all when I come back,” he said. “I’ll come back stronger from it.”