ATHENS — Let me just go ahead and get this out the way: I don’t have a problem with Georgia using starters on special teams, and certainly not back-up running backs, regardless of how many stars came next to their name in recruiting.
The only thing I questioned about Zamir White covering punts in the Bulldogs’ scrimmage last Saturday was the prized running back was doing it eight months after ACL surgery while still wearing protective gear on his right knee. As everyone in the Northern Hemisphere has heard by now, White suffered a torn ACL his left knee while engaging an opposing teammate on that play. He’s now out for the season.
The reason I bring this up now is I was being asked a lot about it last night during the DawgNation Season Kickoff event at the Kroger on Bethelview Road in Cumming. The problem a lot of fans seemed to have with the whole thing was White even being considered for special teams so soon after knee surgery. And, frankly, I felt the same way.
So I decided to dig a little deeper. I called an orthopedic specialist in Alabama that is a friend of mine and asked his opinion on it.
As you might expect, these guys don’t like to second guess each other, so he spoke on the condition of anonymity. But he probably didn’t need to. Everything he told me corroborated what we’re hearing out of Georgia’s camp.
Here are some of things I learned:
- As to whether having an injury on the right side and wearing a brace on it might’ve contributed to the injury occurring on White’s left side ….
“No, I don’t think an injury one side leads to one on the other side. Sometimes it just happens, sometimes it’s just bad luck and sometimes there’s something in their anatomy that predisposes them to ligament injuries.”
- About those protective braces …
“There is nothing in (medical) literature that supports that a brace can prevent a knee injury. The torque that it takes to tear a ligament will tear it whether in a brace or not. It may have a placebo effect.”
- On whether White might’ve been rushed back …
“The ligament doesn’t fully vascularize for about a year, but six to eight months is about average to return to competition, unless there is a bunch of meniscal and cartilage damage. That takes longer. The psychological side can take a year sometimes, too. But guys like (White), six to eight months should be plenty of time. They have a different physiology than you and me.”
- About running backs and ACLs …
“Guys that play running back at that level have such powerful quads that it can be too much for the ligament to take. Muscles grow and get stronger but ligaments and tendons don’t grow as fast”
- On it being a “non-contact” injury …
“Almost all ACL tears are (non-contact).”
- Odds of ACL injuries recurring
“It depends on the type of graft you use. The gold standard is using (one’s own) patella tendon. That recurrence rate is about 5 percent. (Using the hamstring) is about a 7 percent re-tear rate. It’s higher for females.”
So there you have it. As coach Kirby Smart maintained all along, the fact that White was covering punts didn’t put him any more at risk for injury — or re-injury — than him carrying the football 20 times in a game.
As a result, you’ll continue to see Georgia’s running backs on special teams, regardless of whether they’re a starter or not. In fact, D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield — the two most likely starters for the Bulldogs this season — are both slated to play special teams again this fall. Swift confirmed that he remains on the No. 1 punt coverage team. Holyfield is on kickoff return and is being considered for punt coverage as well.
“Yes, sir,” Holyfield said when asked if running backs should be covering kicks. “Whatever Coach Smart tells me to do, I’m doing it.”
The data certainly supports utilizing starters on special teams. The Bulldogs went from last in the SEC in overall special-teams rankings in 2016 to No. 1 last year. Some of that had to do with improved kicking Rodrigo Blankenship and Cameron Nizalek. But it didn’t hurt having Sony Michel and Lorenzo Carter covering punts.
So don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs have White back out there covering punts when he returns. Unfortunate we’ll have to wait another year to see him run the football.