The story of Utah’s first Pac-12 South championship football season has become more interesting in the past week, with star players disclosing the health issues they played through in some of the biggest games in the program’s Pac-12 era.
Ute receiver Britain Covey’s broken wrist, linebacker Chase Hansen’s back injury and punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s appendicitis have become news items recently, partly related to medical disclosures in advance of the NFL draft.
Hansen revealed during Utah’s Pro Day last week that he played half of the 2018 season with a herniated disk in his back. And Wishnowky punted in the Pac-12 championship game with developing appendicitis, requiring a procedure three days later, he said on the Special Forces Gang podcast with former teammates Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips.
Those health reports became public shortly after Covey acknowledged playing nearly half of last season with a broken wrist, evoking Whittingham’s praise of him as “a tough kid.”
Speaking after Tuesday's practice, Whittingham made clear that such decisions are up to the school's medical staff and the players, not the coaches.
“There’s two ways the [medical staff] can handle it: One, they say, no, the guy can’t play. The other one is he can play if he can tolerate the pain,” Whittingham said. “Those guys that are really tough kids can play when the doctors say it can’t get any worse; it’s just a matter of pain tolerance. … They tell us who’s available.”
Covey's wrist made it through the regular season, but then he injured his knee in the Pac-12 championship game vs. Washington and reinjured his wrist while lifting weights in January. The junior is sidelined this spring.
Hansen missed the Pac-12 title game with a hip injury, unrelated to the back issue that he was advised to have repaired in January. He has missed predraft workouts while rehabilitating.
Wishnowsky said he experienced stomach problems the day before the Pac-12 championship game. He felt “just excruciating pain” as he took the field for the specialists' early warmups at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and “just battled through the game,” he said. Partly because of Utah's flurry of third-quarter turnovers and Washington's ball-hogging offense, Wishnowsky had to punt only four times during the game, posting a 42.2-yard average.
Two days later, he determined, “Something's seriously wrong,” and ended up having an appendectomy. With four weeks to recover for the Holiday Bowl, he punted five times for a 46.2-yard average vs. Northwestern in San Diego and then played in the Senior Bowl in January.
Whittingham, who works directly with Utah's kickers, joked of Wishnowsky, “He's dramatic.” But then he said, “Actually, he's a tough kid.”
Having reviewed last Saturday's first major scrimmage of the spring, Whittingham remains concerned about the offensive line. He's worried mostly about depth, not necessarily the No. 1 group that was missing tackle Nick Ford, due to injury.
Asked how the linemen performed, Whittingham said, “The ones, not bad. But the twos, there's quite a dropoff right now, and they need to pick it up. You never know who you're going to need and how far you've got to reach into the depth. That's what's concerning right now, finding those eight or nine guys that we feel are ready to play.”
The first-team offensive linemen provided few creases for running backs up the middle, but that's forgivable, Whittingham said: “That defensive line, there's three NFL guys on that line right now, at least. So it's tough sledding for them. Hopefully, it's tough for everyone else that we play too.”
The Utes will scrimmage at 4 p.m. Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium and conclude spring practice with the Red-White Game on April 13.