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The Iowa Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — A wide smile crept onto Chauncey Golston’s already-jovial face as he recalled his teammate’s fight back. Kristian Welch’s persistence in recovery made for plenty of laughs.

“Kristian would be like, ‘I’m not hurt,’” Golston, Iowa’s menacing defensive end, said with a chuckle. “(The medical staff) would be like, ‘Well, do this test.’ ‘No, we don’t need to do that! I’m good though!’”

“It was really funny. But it was good to have him back.”  

The upper-body stinger that kept Welch sidelined for three-plus games was certainly a serious medical matter — but the injury’s unpredictability made for plenty of lobbying week-to-week. There was no set timetable on when Iowa’s senior linebacker would resurface. Finally, after countless days of disappointment, Saturday was the magic date.

What a return it was.

In helping ignite No. 22 Iowa’s 23-19 toppling of previously unbeaten Minnesota, Welch rolled up a team-high 11 tackles, a pivotal sack and 1.5 tackles for loss en route to a run-game shutdown. Remove sacks and the No. 7 Gophers barely mustered three yards per carry. Welch’s emphatic presence in the middle was as big a reason why.

“Kristian has been here. He’s used to this stage.” Golston said. “He’s loud with the calls It was really great. You could feel his energy giving us the calls. He’s stepping up in case we don’t hear it. It was really nice having Kristian back.”       

As much as players accept injuries as part of doing business, no fourth-year guy wants to see his senior year disrupted by health concerns. This wasn’t a broken bone or fracture either, where the absence length is much more concrete. Welch had to overcome this obstacle from multiple ends.     

It was a massive mental challenge, particularly last week, as Welch couldn’t contribute against his home-state Badgers in Madison. Perhaps Wisconsin’s 24-22 win — and Jonathan Taylor’s 250-yard ground performance — unfolds differently if Welch is roaming the middle. Call that the pinnacle of this month-long turbulence.

However, optimism sprouted early last week. Welch was cleared last Sunday and practiced without a hiccup. The end of this difficult journey had finally come.

“With that type of injury, you just never know when the nerve is going to come back and heal,” Welch said. “It’s just a waiting game. It’s been very frustrating, being a senior and wanting to be able to go out there and play with your guys.

“I just tried to stay mentally into it — preparing like I was going to start each week — because you never did really know if you’re going to get cleared. It’s a very slow process. There’s no pain associated at all. The strength deal is the biggest thing to show that the nerve is healing. … It obviously felt really good being out there with my guys again.”

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No play better illustrated that than Welch’s second-quarter takedown. With Minnesota already stuck in a 20-3 hole, Tanner Morgan and company desperately needed an end-zone answer before the break. The drive started promisingly with Tyler Johnson’s 38-yard grab, pushing the Gophers into Iowa territory. A key fourth-down conversion followed soon after.

That’s when Welch came bulldozing through.

The senior linebacker came on a delayed blitz, surging around the edge untouched to drop Morgan for an eight-yard loss. Even with Minnesota in plus territory, that sack derailed the entire drive. The Gophers punted from the Hawkeyes’ 33-yard line thee plays later.

Veteran pieces halt momentum when it’s bubbling on the other side. Welch did exactly that in a pivotal spot. That moment — and all the others that unfolded Saturday — made the grind back worth it.  

“Always hate to lose a veteran player. It's harder for the player because they're sitting there watching that clock tick on their career. That's hard. You hate to lose a veteran guy, but to get one back is a real benefit,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Kristian is a veteran guy who has been playing his best football. That's what you hope with a guy that's a senior, to get him back. Just really happy about that.”

Every Iowa defensive player who spoke postgame echoed the same. Riley Moss, who missed multiple weeks with his own injury, understood Welch’s circuitous trek back. Cornerback Matt Hankins felt the impact from the backend. Safety Geno Stone saw the same determination Golston witnessed in Welch’s climb back.

“Throughout the weeks, Kristian was always trying to come back,” a laughing Stone said. “He kept trying to push it, push it, push it. You can ask anybody on defense. He was trying to get back each week.”             

Now Welch is back. The Hawkeyes are certainly better for it.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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