Britain Covey remembers preparing for the University of Utah’s game against Idaho State last September.
Covey already knew his surgically-repaired right knee was not 100%, but he managed to catch four Tyler Huntley passes and return five punts in a 31-0 win.
The fact the knee became swollen after a walkthrough days before the game, though, was a sure sign it might be time to slow down. Covey tore his right ACL in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game, but powered through rehabilitation in an effort to be a part of the 2019 team’s dynamic, veteran-heavy offense.
After the Idaho State win, the Utes took their first road trip the following Friday to USC. Covey remembers getting off the plane that Thursday and noticing his knee had become swollen.
“It was like, alright, if I'm swelling up on flights, there's something that's still wrong with it,” Covey said Thursday afternoon following Utah’s third of 15 spring practices. “We spent all night trying to get the swelling down for the USC game, and it was still swollen during the game.
“I realized I’m a liability for the team right now.”
Covey played at USC, but after discussions with the coaching staff and his family, he realized the prudent move was to shut it down for the season. Covey took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows a player to see action in up to four games and still save the year of eligibility. Covey, an All-Pac-12 return specialist and the team’s leading receiver in 2015 and 2018, will be a redshirt junior this fall.
In hindsight, Covey put the health of his knee at roughly 70-75% in the games he played last season. Utes wide receivers coach Guy Holliday thinks that’s right, which makes the fact Covey is closer to 100% now all the more satisfying.
“I watched him through the summer last year and then those first three, four games, I knew he was only about 70%, 65, maybe 60, so to see him out here now looking like himself is a lot of fun,” Holliday told The Salt Lake Tribune. “He and I had some heart-to-hearts and at the end of the day, you want to do what’s best for your player. I think when he looked at the tape and was honest with himself, he knew that his recovery wasn’t as quick as he would have liked it to be.”
Utah spent the first two days of spring ball in helmets, and the third day in shells. There was some hitting on that third day, but the Utes will not go with full pads and full hitting until the fourth practice on March 17. No matter, though, because in those first three practices, Covey has looked like himself.
He’s not wearing a brace and he does not appear to be under limitations or restrictions by Holliday or head coach Kyle Whittingham, who indicated last week that Covey will go back to his role as primary return specialist. The 5-foot-8 Provo native has looked fit and fast in 1-on-1 situations against cornerbacks, and seemingly capable of being the player he was before the injury.
At a minimum, Covey can be a security blanket out of the slot for whoever wins the quarterback battle between Cam Rising and Jake Bentley. Covey’s very best, though, gives the Utes offense and return game a dynamic, often-electrifying element it simply cannot replicate without him.
“Covey’s back, he’s as quick and fast as ever,” Whittingham said with a smile. “Playing without the brace and we’re looking for him to have a big year.
“He's one of the best punt returners and kickoff returners in the country, and that just gives us another weapon in that regard. And we missed him last year. I mean, the guys that filled in did a nice job, but he's a special returner.”
“I’d say my favorite part is finally being able to forget about my knee,” Covey added. “I mean, that was the worst part of last year, lining up for a rout and focusing 50% on your assignment, 50% on my knee. I think that was when I knew it was time to call it, because now I can go out, not even have a second thought about my knee. It’s nice.”