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Bears defensive end Corey Wootton having a breakout year

Defensive end Corey Woott(98) has 41/2 sacks two forced fumbles TD blocked punt. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Defensive end Corey Wootton (98) has 41/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and a TD on a blocked punt. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:24AM

Northwestern defensive line coach Marty Long would say that the Corey Wootton the Bears have gotten this season — the explosive rushes around opposing tackles, the strong plays inside against runs and so on — is just the beginning.

“You’re really just seeing the true Corey come out now,” Long said.

Long has plenty of stories he loves to share about Wootton, whom he coached at Northwestern for two years.

There’s the first time he saw “the tall, gangly kid” when he coached at Nevada. There’s the time Wootton came over, after earnestly heeding his instructions to learn some martial arts, and demonstrated moves he learned from his sensei on his front lawn.

There was the young player who shared jokes. There’s the current NFLer who willingly comes back to NU to teach younger linemen.

But watching Wootton overcome injury after injury in college and with the Bears left a real impression.

“He’s one of those self-made type of guys,” Long said

Wootton’s ascension reached its peak when he made his first career start on the Bears’ base defense against the San Francisco 49ers on “Monday Night Football.” Coach Lovie Smith said Wootton earned it with his play, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said he keeps “getting better and better.”

Wootton, a fourth-round pick in 2010, has endured plenty to get there.

He overcame a neck injury his freshman year that made him redshirt, a torn right ACL in the 2008 Alamo Bowl that discouraged him from entering the NFL draft, arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after getting hurt during the kickoff of the Bears’ 2011 preseason opener and a broken hand suffered in practice in October 2011.

“A lot of people had counted me out from even making this team this year,” Wootton said. “I just knew this offseason I had to come in and work and get myself healthy and really show them what type of player I could be.”

In his third season, Wootton has 41/2 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a touchdown on a blocked punt in 10 games. He’s also a key part of the Bears’ special teams.

“Rookie year, it was kind of what I expected just with the rotation,” said Wootton, who famously ended Brett Favre’s career with his first career sack in 2010. “Last year, I came in and had a good training camp. It was just very frustrating, the timing of the injury. Just the whole year, I didn’t play much.

“I just knew that when I was healthy, I’d be able to show everybody the type of player and type of explosion I could bring to the table.”

It’s easy to forget that Wootton once was considered first-round material before his torn ACL. The Sun-Times also reported after the Bears drafted Wootton that some teams were concerned about his old neck injury.

But Long always knew what Wootton had in him.

He remembers the All-Big Ten defensive end at Northwestern who had 10 sacks in 2008, who saw his NFL dreams change with a torn ACL and who persevered through a tough senior season.

“There were times where we had designed things for him and were not able to use those things because he could not physically do them,” Long said. “It was just getting strength back in his leg and getting the confidence. People also knew he had a knee injury, so he was getting a lot more chop blocks, a lot more cut blocks.

“The injury set him back, but I think the Bears will reap the benefits of the true Corey here in the near future. I’m glad they hung with him. They could not have.”

Wootton always felt like he could be an NFL starter.

“I feel like I’m on the verge of showing them what I can do,” he said. “But we’ve got to take the next step and keep improving every week.”

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