Dealing With College Football Injuries: “Challenge,” “Opportunity”

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Rich Rodriguez has probably seen enough injuries in the last season-and-a-half to last him the remainder of his time in college football.

However, as his injury-plagued Arizona Wildcats prepare to face a Stanford Cardinal bunch that has been as banged up this season, Rodriguez said the last two seasons are an anomaly in the larger sample size of his coaching career.

“It’s a freak…type of thing,” he said. “We’ve looked at everything from how we practice, to our training methods, to everything in between. A few years ago, we had the exact same training methods and practices, and had very few injuries.”

No data exists that suggests college football has more injuries now than it did 10, 20, 30 years ago — though it certainly feels like college football’s dealt with more and higher profile injuries in the last two seasons than at any other time. Last season saw teams like TCU ravaged, losing star players like Josh Doctson.

This season, Tennessee and Penn State rank among the more battered lineups. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara have all faced injuries of varying severity for the Vols.

“I’ve never been through a season like this where the injuries just continue to mount up. But that’s the game of football,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said following his team’s Week 7 loss to Alabama.

That is indeed the game of football; injury is the risk inherent with a violent sport. Sometimes, risk is about luck, and some teams have just been unlucky. Arizona’s one of them.

Arizona played almost the entirety of the 2015 season without 2014 All-American linebacker Scooby Wright, and large chunks of the season without quarterback Anu Solomon.

“You’re always going to have injuries. The challenge is when you have so many at one position,” Rodriguez said.

Last season, it was Wright and his teammates at linebacker. This season, the Wildcats are so depleted at running back that slot receiver Samajie Grant moves into the backfield this week.

Grant’s insertion at running back demonstrates the approach Rodriguez said he favors, recruiting “versatile” prospects who can play multiple positions if the occasion arises. Transitioning a player from slot receiver to running back, like in Grant’s case, isn’t particularly unusual.

But Rodriguez has had to mix-and-match at a much more noticeable spot.

Arizona’s faced a rash of quarterback injuries this season, losing Solomon between Weeks 1 and 2, and back-up Brandon Dawkins earlier this month.

When third-string freshman Khalil Tate went down two weeks ago against USC, Rodriguez turned to tight end Matt Morin, who played quarterback in high school.

Though David Shaw hasn’t had to play a tight end at quarterback, Stanford hasn’t fared much better.

Christian McCaffrey missed much of the loss to Washington State, all of the Notre Dame win, and has been limited for the better part of the last month. Cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks both came out at the beginning of the month.

“It’s a challenge to us as coaches, it’s a challenge to guys who have to step up, it’s a challenge to those guys that are not injured and playing, but playing next to someone who’s a new guy or a young guy or an inexperienced guy,” Shaw said.

Challenge was one of two words Shaw emphasized. The other, in reference to those “new…young…inexperienced” players?

“Opportunity,” he said. “They play a couple plays here and there, now they’ve got to play 30 plays. Frank Buncom, guys like that, who we knew were talented, at some point were going to get to play, get thrust out there.

“Every snap that they take is like putting money in the bank for their future and their growth and their maturation process,” he added.

Shaw said Stanford does its best to mix up lineups in spring and preseason practices so when that opportunity does arise, reserves will feel more comfortable. While it’s nice to get underclassmen prepared for the future, Shaw notes he’s “still trying to win games now.”

It’s not often the case, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

College Gameday emanates from Salt Lake City this week, home to the marquee matchup of Week 9, and another epicenter for injuries this season.

The Utah Utes moved to 6-1 last week, defeating UCLA 52-45, on the strength of running back Joe Williams’ record-setting, 332-yard performance.

Williams was only in the lineup because Zack Moss, Troy McCormick, Jordan Howard and Armand Shyne all went to the sidelines in the last month — a month Williams spent in retirement, prompted after his own injury issues mounted.

Utah’s glimmer of fortune amid a series of misfortune is more exception than rule, though. Defending Pac-12 champion Stanford is all but eliminated from defending its crown. Arizona’s sputtered to a four-game losing streak, commensurate with the lengthening of the weekly injury report. Williams’ breakthrough game a week ago came at the expense of UCLA, a loser of three straight since quarterback Josh Rosen sustained nerve damage in his shoulder late against Arizona State.

Any possible good news that can be gleaned is the losses now translate to success in the future — a cash-in of that “money in the bank” Shaw discussed. More good news? If injuries are indeed more attributable to luck than anything else, the law of averages dictates a team shouldn’t be decimated as badly as Stanford is this year again next season.

In Rodriguez’s case, he’s built up enough of an injury luck cachet to never see another couple seasons like that last two again.