(MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning will be providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. )
Everybody has superstitions. Unfounded yet dogmatic beliefs are laced throughout the fabric of our culture.
Sailors in history believed it was bad luck to have flowers onboard a ship because they could later be used in a funeral arrangement. Many actors believe that whistling in a theater is bad mojo, stemming from the fact that whistling was traditionally the preferred method of communication among stage hands. An old military superstition warns that it’s unlucky to light three cigarettes with a single match, believed by some to have originated from the notion that such a match had a greater chance of being spotted in the dark by the enemy. Old school Italians feel the number 17 is cursed because the Roman numerals can be rearranged to spell vixi, which in Latin means I have lived.
Sports, of course, are littered with superstitions. This includes football, a game where pregame habits and locker room routines can be nothing short of ritualistic. And on the gridiron, one superstition seems to reign supreme above all others: never bring up injuries.
Ask any coach. Ask any player. For that matter, ask any trainer. Nearly all of them will tell you the same thing. It’s universally accepted that you don’t tempt the hand of fate by discussing injuries unless asked directly. When you do have to address the topic, you’d be well served to find a nice wooden surface to knock on three times for good measure.
And that’s exactly what West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart did when asked his strategy for preparing and adjusting for injuries.
After all, injuries are going to happen. Football isn’t just a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. As such, injuries are an inherent part of the game. History tells us it’s not a matter of if but when they will play out. Show me a major college football program that navigates its way through a 12-game schedule without having to overcome a few key injuries and I’ll show you a team that doesn’t have the pedal to the floor. In short, you can’t prevent injuries entirely, but you can try to prepare for them, or even mitigate them to an extent.
For instance, when College Football Hall of Fame coach Matty Bell was once asked the secret to his success he replied without pause: “I never let Doak Walker or Kyle Rote get tackled in practice.”
Bell’s point was a simple one. Walker (1948 Heisman winner) and Rote (1950 All-American) were easily his most prized players and keeping them upright in practice on Wednesday meant they would be in full health for action on Saturday. In Bell’s estimation, an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure.
Of course none of this changes the fact that coaches loathe discussing the topic at all.
Before answering the question, Coach Stewart grimaced as he considered it, and then softly rapped his knuckles on the top of his desk the requisite three times. Knocking on wood, maybe he was kidding; maybe he wasn’t. My money’s on the latter.
“We try to come up with scenarios that will help prepare us for things when injuries do take place. We look for multiple ways to get the ball to certain areas or certain positions,” said Stewart. “For example, in the spring we tried to do things to get the ball to the tight end position, not just a particular player but to the position itself.”
In other words, players will at some point go down. When they do so, it’s incumbent upon the coaching staff to prepare other players, reserves and starters alike, for the inevitable game of musical chairs needed to compensate for the sudden void the injury creates in the line-up.
“It might be the H-Back with Will Johnson, the true tight end with Tyler Urban. We took Tavon (Austin) and found him a spot out wide to give us some more flexibility, and we have Jock (Sanders) move around as well to prepare for different situations,” continued Stewart. “If someone goes down, in addition to having the back-ups as prepared as possible, we try to be ready to move different guys to different positions where they’ve had reps. That helps us offset things.”
The moral of the story? Just like inclement weather, bad calls and bizarre bounces of the ball, injuries are a natural part of the game so you better have a contingency plan in place to deal with them.
One of the most challenging parts of my job as a sideline reporter for MSN is trying to stay abreast of injuries as they happen. It’s not as if every injury results in a high profile exit involving a timeout and an assembly of trainers sprinting onto the field. Just as often, players quickly hobble off the field under the radar of most onlookers and grab a spot on the end of the beach. If not for the help and cooperation I get on the sidelines from John Spiker, WVU’s Coordinator of Athletic Medical Services, it would almost be impossible to keep tabs. Players slip in and out of action with major bumps and bruises more than you might guess.
Case in point: the BCS National Championship this past January. Nobody warned the Texas Longhorns that star quarterback Colt McCoy would get knocked out of action on the first possession against Alabama. For that matter, nobody notified West Virginia that Heisman finalist Major Harris would separate his shoulder on the third play from scrimmage against Notre Dame in the Jan. 2, 1989 Fiesta Bowl. Nor could anyone tip off the Mountaineers to the fact that Pat White would suffer a handful of injuries that would limit his action, or in some cases keep him out altogether, against Rutgers in 2006, or South Florida and Pitt in 2007. Nobody warned Bill Stewart that a concussion would knock fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Brown out of the Friends of Coal Bowl against Marshall last year on the fourth play of the game, or that Brown would be forced to watch the second half of the Gator Bowl against Florida State from the sidelines with a banged up ankle.
Listed above are just a few of the many examples that jump to mind, but the issue of course isn’t confined to just quarterbacks. When it comes to getting nicked by the injury bug, no position is beyond reproach. It runs the gamut from linebackers, D-linemen and DBs to running backs, receivers and O-linemen. For 60 snaps or more each week they all live in harm’s way, and the price can often be more than their bodies can bear.
For instance, after bursting onto the bowl scene against Georgia with a Sugar Bowl-record 204 yards rushing, injuries drastically hampered the production of WVU’s Steve Slaton in the final two postseason appearances of his career. In point of fact, Slaton was limited to a combined 9 yards on four carries in West Virginia’s 2007 Gator Bowl win over Georgia Tech and the 2008 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma.
As you would expect it’s been the same story on the defensive side as well where the Mountaineers have rarely managed to slip the injury bug. We all remember the well-documented shoulder problems standout linebacker Reed Williams battled throughout his career. The same was true of All-American Grant Wiley, who missed a significant portion of his sophomore season at West Virginia in 2001 due to injury. Last year, a shoulder injury limited defensive end Scooter Berry’s reps early in the season, and in April, J.T. Thomas, a team leader at linebacker, missed the Mountaineers’ spring game because of injury.
These facts aren’t lost on West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel echoes Bill Stewart’s sentiment, suggesting strategic preparation and personnel flexibility are the best ways a coach can ready his players for the moment the line-up gets knocked off its axis by injuries.
“You always ask yourself, ‘If this guy goes down who is our next best player at that position?’ Sometimes you might have to shuffle a kid that’s playing Will (weak side LB) over to play Sam (strong side LB) if he’s the next best kid at that position,” said Casteel.
“Those are the kind of things we try to do in the spring. We try to get some work at different spots so the kids have a chance to learn those different spots without as much heat on them,” Casteel continued. “Once we get into the latter part of camp we try to finalize things by making sure we have our best 11 guys on the field and the best guys behind them.”
As you read the preceding paragraphs perhaps you found yourself recalling countless other injuries that have impacted countless other games through the years. There are plenty to choose from, but the only thing they all share in common is that nobody saw them coming.
As for what might unfold on the injury front in 2010, no one has the crystal ball needed to tell us what players and/or teams the bug might have its eye on across the Big East landscape. All things considered, there really isn’t much fans can do except cross their fingers and hope for the best.
And maybe knock on wood.
By Jed Drenning
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