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The Hawkeyes' right tackle has missed five starts with a lower-leg injury, but is expected back for the Outback Bowl. Chad Leistikow / The Register

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TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa offensive lineman Cole Croston admittedly struggled at times this season.

Now we have a better idea why.

Croston was playing hurt for weeks — from the beginning of Big Ten Conference play — with a stress reaction that would become a fracture in his right lower leg.

But the good news is, he’s feeling recharged and ready, and is expected to start for the first time in more than 10 weeks in Monday’s Outback Bowl (Noon CT, ABC) against Florida.

“At times,” Croston said, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it back.”

Croston was working as the No. 1 right tackle in two practice blocks that were open to the media this week in Tampa.

As he approaches the last game of his Hawkeye career, he said he’s “feeling way more fresh than half these guys are.”

He first noticed pain in his shin in the Hawkeyes’ 14-7 win at Rutgers on Sept. 24. He played through it in the Oct. 1 showdown with Northwestern, when Iowa gave up six sacks — four by Ifeadi Odenigbo, who blew past Croston at left tackle on several occasions to reach quarterback C.J. Beathard.

That triggered Iowa assistant Brian Ferentz to juggle his offensive line — Croston moved to right tackle, Ike Boettger to left guard and Boone Myers to left tackle.

But the following week’s game against Minnesota only made matters worse for Croston.

“Minnesota... I looked terrible out there,” he said. “I tweaked it out there in the first half. I tripped, and I hit it on Sean (Welsh)’s leg.

“(At halftime), we taped it up in a cast, and I just went back out there — was able to finish the game. From there, it’s kind of gone downhill.”

For the first time in his five-year career at Iowa, Croston had a significant injury. He sat out against Purdue, then — against doctors’ recommendations — tried to play through it (with Myers out) in the Oct. 22 home loss to Wisconsin. After that, he was basically shut down — appearing for only two PAT attempts at Penn State, and then not at all during Iowa’s season-ending, three-game win streak.

“I knew what would happen if I tried to play through it,” Croston said. “Doctors might not be happy with me, but I wanted to be out there with my teammates. The bright side to that situation is that I’m able to be out there with them now.”

In November, Iowa dials down the strength and conditioning for its heavily-used players, given them a better chance to be game-fresh. Croston, while sidelined, did the opposite — ramping up his upper-body program.

It’s for that reason he’s excited to get out there one last time.

The son of former all-Big Ten lineman Dave Croston (who wore the same No. 64) is thankful for that.

“Watching’s terrible. Watching sucks,” Croston said. “Being able to be out there and actually move guys — get out there and be physical... It’s so fun. That’s what linemen do.”

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