Utah defensive end Joe Kruger wore an ankle brace earlier in the season after suffering an injury. The gadget might as well have been a ball and chain.
Kruger, Utah’s 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive end, felt hampered and slowed by the injury. Instead of thinking how he’d blast through the line next or wrap his arms around a quarterback, he was worried how his ankle would feel if he planted or if it could hold up to the force of pushing off the turf.
Finally, after weeks of frustration, the ankle is better, the brace is gone and Kruger is unleashed.
Kruger is coming off one of his best games of the year against Washington State. He finished with just two tackles and 1.5 sacks, but he was a constant disruptive factor as he lined up inside and outside and in general seemed to go at the line from every angle.
The result was a harried Washington State line and a quarterback who never could get comfortable in the pocket.
The Utes went with the change in lineup since the Cougars throw so much. Kruger is likely to spend more time at his usual position from now on, but that doesn’t mean he is done tormenting opponents’ offenses.
With just three games to go, Kruger feels he is just now finding his old form again.
Being out of that “ridiculous ankle brace,” as he put it, has made him feel like a new player. And his role against Washington State helped revitalize him, he said.
“I was playing all three, tackle, end and standing up as a linebacker rushing the middle, and it was fun,” he said. “I’m not a quarterback or anything, but it’s probably intimidating when you see a 6-6, 280-pound guy standing up and rushing at you as hard as he can. I got to do that in high school too, and to get to do it again was fun.”
A re-energized Kruger is just what the Utes need as they prepare for Washington.
Huskies quarterback Keith Price is a mobile guy, much in the same fashion UCLA’s Brett Hundley was. Hundley drove Utah’s defenders nuts because he’d evade their grasp just as they reached him.
Now healthy, Kruger hopes he has that little bit of extra speed needed to wrap up quarterbacks.
“Last weekend was the first time my ankle wasn’t bothering me at all,” he said. “I was able to cut and get off the ball and finally felt comfortable. I’m back up to full speed and not thinking about the ankle anymore.”
His play against Washington State impacted the whole team, said safety Brian Blechen.
“He’s always a hard worker, and you won’t hear him say a lot during the week,” Blechen said. “But on Saturdays his game does the talking.”
Seeing Kruger in the backfield more shouldn’t surprise anyone. He is the third Kruger brother to star for the Utes, following his older brother Paul, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens, and Dave, a senior defensive tackle for the Utes.
Joe isn’t merely following in his brothers’ footsteps, but setting his own standard of play, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
“He is starting to play with a lot of confidence and has been a real force for us,” Whittingham said. “He has made a lot of progress in the last few weeks.”
Joe Kruger file
• 6-6, 280 pounds; junior
Hometown • Orem
Of note • Has 22 tackles and leads the Utes with five sacks. ... Missed the ASU game due to an ankle injury. ... Has two forced fumbles, an interception for a touchdown and a pass breakup. ... Finished with 35 tackles and three sacks in 2011.
Utah at Washington
P Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network