Monson: Utah, BYU fending off football’s cruel injury reality
By Gordon Monson
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Aug 06 2013 03:50PM
It’s not really my place to be posing questions to the Big Head Coach in the Sky. But if I ever get a chance to ask the Absolute Being a question or two in His heavenly domain as it pertains to football — a game I figure He favors on account of its prosperity down on this terrestrial orb — a couple of the first I’d launch out there are these:
What about the knee? What about the hamstring? What about turf toe? What about all those season-ending injuries in fall camp? What could have been done to make those joints, those ligaments, those digits, those muscles just a bit more elastic, more durable?
Then, I’ll be dropped straightaway to the depths of hell.
Still, have you seen the number of guys going down with season-enders in the NFL, within just a week or so of camps opening? Every day, there’s another player being carted off the field, busted up and done for the season before the season even begins. It’s brutal.
Dennis Pitta, gone. Lamont Bryant, gone. Turk McBride, gone. Dan Koppen, gone. J.D. Walton, gone. Sederrik Cunningham, gone. Phillip Supernaw, gone. Brandon McKinney, gone. Chris Givens, gone. Aaron Berry, gone. Jason Phillips, gone. Nik Embernate, gone. Melvin Ingram, gone. Chris Culliver, gone. Keenan Robinson, gone. Bryan Bulaga, gone.
And … you get the idea.
It’s gotten to the point where coaches are starting to tiptoe through the tulips a bit, easing off the grind of the game. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, for instance, gave veteran all-pro safety Troy Polamalu the day off from practice. When asked why, Tomlin said: "He’s got a contusion to the birth certificate."
The injury situation can be even more devastating for college teams. Like Kyle Whittingham said after Utah practice on Tuesday: "Unlike the NFL, we don’t have the luxury to trade for somebody or pick somebody up off waivers. We’ve got to play with what we’ve got, so we have to be more careful than they are at that level."
Finding the correct line between careful and paranoid is the coach’s challenge. Bronco Mendenhall is utilizing Kyle Van Noy essentially as an assistant coach for the first two weeks of BYU camp because of a small tweak in the linebacker’s hammy.
Smart move. What is Van Noy going to pick up in preseason practice that he doesn’t already know? Nothing.
At Utah, team leader Trevor Reilly, who played on a blown ACL and torn meniscus last season, and who had surgery eight months ago, has paced himself, with the coaches’ blessing, through the initial two practices.
"He’s played so much, he doesn’t need the looks now," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "We want him ready when the time comes. And he will be."
Said Reilly: "We’re just kind of feeling it out. I’m taking reps, but not as many as I would otherwise."
On the reps the linebacker/defensive end does get, he’s going full bore because, he said, if he doesn’t, he’s more likely to reinjure the knee, or break some other body part:
"I try not to think about it. One thing I was worried about was favoring the knee in my mind. But I’ve ignored it. Most injuries happen when you’re not going 100 percent. But the season is long. We don’t play for another 22 days. You don’t have to go crazy the second day of camp."
He does wear a brace.
Sitake said Utah coaches are taking precautions with all their players, but that still guarantees nothing: "Some of the worst injuries come on freakish plays, sometimes when there isn’t even any contact. These guys are so big and fast, 250- to 300-pound guys aren’t supposed to move like that."
The Utes are cutting down on practice time as a means of limiting exposure to risks. But, again, finding proper delineation between being smart and getting sloppy isn’t easy.
"We’re trying to get [players] off the field sooner," Whittingham said. "We go 20 to 30 minutes shorter than we have in past years. But it’s still something you have to keep your hand on the pulse of the guys, as far as the wear and tear on them and how much you can push them. You have to be careful. There’s a fine line between getting the work done and diminishing returns. We’re trying to be aware of that. The first step is cut down the amount of time they’re on the field.
"You’ve got to get them to the fight. You want them there when the season opens, but, at the same time, there’s work that has to be done. You have to be sharp with your tackling, your blocking, your cutting and defeating the cut blocks, all those things you’ve got to work on to be ready for the season. You’ve just got to manage that, have a feel for how much live work you’re able to do."
On the other hand, Whittingham resigns himself to the inevitable fact that the fates will do their dirty deeds at some point, causing their mischief among his ranks. Football, after all, is a game in which extraordinarily large men slam themselves straight at one another at high rates of speed.
"Once in a while, you’re going to lose a guy," he said. "But you’ve got to get the work done. You’ve got to be ready to play."
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.