IOWA CITY – Gophers coach Tracy Claeys tries not to dwell on injuries, believing his best focus is on the players who are on the field.
But as Claeys has found since replacing retired coach Jerry Kill, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this team in big-picture terms without stating the obvious.
With starting tailback Rodney Smith missing Saturday’s game at Iowa with an ankle injury, the Gophers have now had 24 players combine to miss 94 games because of injuries. That includes 14 starters, who’ve combined to miss 55 games.
“It’s part of the game,” Claeys said. “Since I’ve been with Coach Kill [over 21 years], it’s the most [injuries] we’ve had in a season, where kids have missed so many games. It’s just one of those years. Since we haven’t had a lot, I guess they are going to happen to us this year.”
Claeys mentioned senior safety Damarius Travis as one of the biggest losses. The Gophers consider him an NFL prospect, and he suffered a severe hamstring injury, trying to block a punt late in the season-opening loss to TCU.
Travis will get a medical redshirt, so the Gophers can look forward to having him back next year, at least. Starting tight end Lincoln Plsek is another sure bet for a medical redshirt; the senior has been out all season with a back injury.
The Gophers would have preferred to have both of them this season. They still had 10 starters missing against Iowa: Smith, Travis, Plsek, Josh Campion, Ben Lauer, Brian Bobek, Steven Richardson, Scott Ekpe, Craig James, Jalen Myrick.
“I think our two D-tackles that are sitting out [Richardson and Ekpe] are All-Big Ten guys,” Claeys said after the 40-35 loss to Iowa. “We are starting to wear down in the middle, and they controlled the line of scrimmage in the middle and that was the difference in the game.”
Claeys added: “In the secondary, I look up during warmups, and we have four corners, and we have two seniors [Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray] and two true freshman [KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault] lining up at corner. We are banged up there, and not all four of them are healthy.
“Injuries are a part of the game, and we’ve got to continue to work and find things that the kids can do best and make some plays. Controlling the line of scrimmage, I think was the big part.”
Several players have been hurt and come back, including senior Boddy-Calhoun.
“Everybody plays banged up this time of year,” Claeys said. “Even your healthy guys are banged up, and so if they can get through a game without aggravating [their injuries], then they’re probably going to play a little better the next week.
“But the first couple weeks Briean played, he kept aggravating his old injury.”
Freshmen fill void
One benefit of injuries, though, is they produce opportunities for others to get playing time. Three true freshmen who’ve stepped in as impact players are cornerback Hardin, wide receiver Rashad Still and center Tyler Moore.
Hardin filled at cornerback for Myrick and at punt returner for James.
“[Hardin] is one tough dude,” Claeys said. “You think about that, true freshman, and he’s playing in Webb City, Missouri, a year ago. And now he is on prime time TV, and he’s back there catching punts and just making some tremendous plays. He just loves the game and he’s a natural.”