Between December 2002 and the start of the 2003 season, Owen Daniels quietly toiled with rehabilitation from a knee injury similar in scope to the one that forced former Wisconsin receiver Lee Evans to miss the entire 2002 season. By the time fall training camp rolled around that August, however, Daniels was ready to go.
He had been there before, having suffered the same injury—a torn anterior cruciate ligament—in the same knee while a senior at Naperville (Ill.) Central.
So it should come as little surprise that when Daniels suffered a high ankle sprain this season—comparable to the one that kept tailback Anthony Davis out of all or most of nine games last season—he quietly worked his way back to health and never missed a snap.
The ankle injury sidelined Daniels for most of fall camp, but he pushed to get back onto the practice field the Sunday prior to Wisconsin's season opener in order to be a part of the game plan that week.
"First day I came back to practice it was a little slow moving and just kind of feeling things out because I wasn't really sure…which way I could twist it out there making cuts," Daniels said.
The ankle has ailed Daniels to some degree throughout the season.
"It just takes a while to heal up and it is an easy one to tweak here and there," Daniels said. "I've had a little bit of pain on and off but that's something that I'm getting over."
Wisconsin's opponents have not noticed any ill effects. The 6-foot-3 235-pound junior tight end leads the Badgers in receiving yards (233) and is second in receptions (12). He notched game and career highs with four catches for 72 yards in Wisconsin's win at Ohio State last week.
Daniels' one touchdown catch this season was a 52-yard pitch-and-catch in the season opener against Central Florida, during which he leapt over a would-be tackler.
"I always dreamed of hurdling somebody," Daniels said after that game.
What Daniels never imagined, though, was that he would be catching passes at Wisconsin, rather than throwing them. Despite tearing his ACL just two games into his senior year, Daniels earned some high school All-American honors as a quarterback.
Two years into his Badger career, however, Daniels was a fourth-team redshirt freshman quarterback. During bowl practices in December 2002, he was unceremoniously switched from quarterback to tight end. A few days into the transition, though, he again tore his ACL, and in painfully similar fashion.
"Both times I got hit pretty hard when my foot was planted in the ground," Daniels said. "It wasn't like my knee gave out on me or anything. It was a pretty violent hit.
"Second time going through it is tough, even though I had the experience once and knew what to expect with rehab and everything. It's tough regardless."
Daniels was ready for fall camp, though, and he made an immediate impact, catching 15 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns last season, while playing receiver and tight end.
"I'm pretty proud of myself for first of all coming back from the injury and then switching positions about the same time," he said. "I just want to contribute in some way."
"For the brief time where I had him, he jumped into it with both feet," receivers coach Henry Mason said. "That just shows a lot about his attitude and the way he goes about his business."
Daniels wanted to focus on one position and Wisconsin's coaching staff gave him that choice last January.
"I thought I could help out the team a lot more at the tight end position, especially if I could become an effective blocker," Daniels said.
So Daniels added 20 pounds of muscle to an already sturdy frame without losing a step. He now looks the part of the future NFL tight end Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez has envisioned him as.
"He's developing fine as a blocker," tight ends coach Rob Ianello said. "He's understanding leverage and I think what's helping him now is his ankle might finally be healed. That's helping his blocking tremendously right now."
"When I'm in a [pass-catching] situation I'm in the wide receiver mind frame," Daniels said. "Other than that I'm in there trying to be physical and blocking."
Daniels is a dual-threat tight end, lining up comfortably in-line, in the slot or split wide. He is considered a co-starter at tight end with the more blocking-centric Tony Paciotti and Jason Pociask.
"[Daniels] plays tight end but he runs as good as a lot of receivers in the country," Mason said. "That's a tremendous weapon that you can have when you can trot a tight end out there and they don't know whether he is going to line up tight or whether he is going to be split."
"There's guys that run routes and there are guys that get open," said Ianello, who was a receivers coach at Arizona from 1997-2002. "He's moving towards the getting open guy more and more because he understands leverage. He understands when to make a move, how to make a move. I think his background as a quarterback helps him read coverages."
With defenses crowding the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow down Davis and the Badgers' running game, there are opportunities for Daniels to find the soft spots in the secondary, particularly in the middle of the field.
"He can line up tight and he can block, we can run the ball, or he comes out there and he's split and he's running like a receiver," Mason said. "That dictates to the defense."
TE perseveres, thrives at UW
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