Football

Hidden wounds: After a slew of unpublicized injuries derailed Syracuse last year, the program makes adjustments to stay healthy in 2012

Each time the scene is the same. Doug Marrone alongside an injured Syracuse football player, a doctor nearby and the young man’s parents on speakerphone.

The doctor is the bearer of bad news, his findings the cause of the room’s dejection. Time after time, Marrone sat through that phone call during the 2011 season. So often that he and the players began to question their luck.

Eleven players — or more than 10 percent of the active roster — suffered concussions last season with a frequency that surprised the coaching staff, Marrone said in an extended interview. Other injuries, many of which have not been made public until now, also piled up, and 10 of the 11 starters on defense dealt with serious ailments in the latter stages of the year.

“We were very banged up,” said Mikhail Marinovich, a defensive end on the 2011 team who has since graduated. “A lot of guys, including myself, weren’t even in a lot of practices and just kind of played the day before and then game day.”

The injury problem was the principal hindrance during the five-game losing streak that closed out the 2011 season. A stout run defense became porous, and the offense slipped in productivity as the team went into a tailspin. It forced Marrone and his staff to alter certain elements of the team’s strength training and on-field practice habits going into 2012, with the ultimate goal being a more controlled environment that should produce a healthier season.

“What I did when the season was over is I went out and researched the amount and type of plays that we needed to be successful and all this quality control,” Marrone said. “And I just felt that we as a coaching staff should change up what we’re doing.

“We hope that will help us not get as many of the types of injuries that we’ve been getting.”

‘You won’t hear about it’

Since age 4, Dan Vaughan was a wrestler. He spent 15 years of his life on the mat developing the keen neck strength that is both necessary within the sport and a by-product of its movements.

Now a graduate student entering his fifth season at linebacker for Syracuse, his muscular development from wrestling is an advantage in the battle against concussions. Years of putting his head down on the mat and manipulating his neck to build strength and counter opponents puts him at a lower risk for a concussion.

It’s a correlation that has been embraced by Marrone and his staff, and special strength drills in the weight room began last spring to improve players’ neck strength.

“We do some stuff in the weight room where you go up against someone’s knee, and you’re constantly going back and forth,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “We’ll be on all fours, and someone will put their knee out, and you push your head up against it in and out.”

Vaughan said another exercise has one player move his head in different directions while it is held by a partner in various positions to strengthen the entire circumference of the neck.

Both Vaughan and Pugh struggled to name any of the 11 players who suffered concussions a season ago. They mentioned Adam Harris, a starting fullback in 2011 who saw his career end due to multiple concussions, but backup center Ian Allport was the only other player they named.

Pugh said players are not made aware of their teammates’ injuries, and trainers don’t share information when asked. Vaughan added that only severe concussions are made public to the team, and it’s very easy for a player to sit out of practice a few days and return without any explanation.

“Unless a guy comes out and says it, you won’t hear about it,” Pugh said.

Marrone said the early results are positive, but the full test will come once the regular season gets underway. He said Syracuse made it through spring practice without a concussion or any concussion symptoms, and the players showed improvement when their neck strength was tested prior to the start of preseason camp.

“The coaches and the medical staff, we all take injuries seriously, but especially concussions,” Marrone said. “ … We all have a high awareness for it.”

Pugh said the other major change for the 2012 season is the extra time spent by the coaching staff instructing players on the proper tempo of each drill. Players weren’t on the same page last year, he said, when it came to how hard each drill was supposed to be run.

It’s something Marrone said he addressed with his coaching staff during the summer to make some alterations for this year’s preseason camp. The goal was to avoid the dangerous game of one-upmanship that Pugh described as essentially part intensity and part self-defense.

“If we’re going (at a speed) where you’re not actually hitting somebody, we’re not going to have guys lowering their heads thinking, ‘He might come full speed, so I have to go full speed,’” Pugh said.

“It’s kind of like this thing where it’s one-up, one-up, one-up until it gets to a level that’s too high.”

‘It’s kind of like a battery’

Week after week, Marinovich struggled to sleep the night before a game. Two to three hours at most was all he could manage, struggling to get comfortable and relax. Nerves weren’t the issue — his back was.

Marinovich said he “was hurt all year” and played the entire 2011 season with three herniated discs and a bulging disc in his back.

“In the hotel rooms I slept on the floor, slept on the ground,” Marinovich said. “It was a nightmare.”

Marinovich was one of five former seniors on the 2011 team who discussed at length the additional injury problems — outside of concussions — that plagued the Orange defense and derailed a once-promising season. Every starter except safety Phillip Thomas, who was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules after 10 games, played through a moderate to serious injury while the media and fans were, for the most part, unaware.

Marinovich listed off the walking wounded with ease and named almost all 11 players on the defense. The injuries to Chandler Jones (knee), Keon Lyn (shoulder, hand), Jay Bromley (hand) and Ri’Shard Anderson (hand) were obvious, as their braces and casts were visible during games.

But it was players like Deon Goggins (major shoulder problems), Dyshawn Davis (dislocated shoulder), Shamarko Thomas (partially torn hamstring) and Dan Vaughan (severely strained oblique muscle) who gutted out the season while shrouding their true statuses.

Cory Boatman, a backup defensive tackle who rotated in with Goggins and Bromley, was forced to wear a molded brace on his right wrist during games to prevent it from bending backward and to limit the severe swelling.

“I just knew that a lot of guys were banged up,” Boatman said. “We would talk in the locker room and be like, ‘Dang, I’m not feeling it this practice.’ But we would go out there and compete.”

A group that allowed just 99.4 rushing yards per game through a 5-2 start sprung leaks over the final five games. Syracuse was continuously carved apart by opponents’ rushing attacks to the tune of 168.4 yards per game during that stretch, including a 37-17 loss to South Florida when it gave up 236 yards on the ground.

Marinovich said his practice time was limited to the point where he sometimes only participated in the walkthrough before taking the field on game day. Other weeks he would practice sporadically, but there was rarely more than a day or two in between games.

Harris said it was difficult at times for the offense to get the necessary looks it needed against a first-team defense where only a handful of starters actually practiced and others were playing at only 75 to 80 percent at best.

“It’s funny because you go into those games and you think, ‘All right, well, I’ll recover by next week,’” Marinovich said. “But it’s kind of like a battery, and you just keep going lower and lower and lower until finally something gives.”

Marinovich’s back finally did give when he was speared by a Cincinnati tight end 30 yards away from the ball in the second-to-last game of the season. It was the end of his Syracuse career and another casualty for the defense.

‘Never crossed my mind’

Naturally, the questions poured in as the losses added up. A defense that allowed only one 75-yard rusher in the first seven games of the season allowed six in the final five games.

But the same players were going out there each week. It didn’t make sense. And Marrone was peppered with criticism and inquiries from the media.

What is going on with the defense? Why can’t you stop the run? What are you going to do differently?

“There’s plenty of times where he would like to just come out and say, ‘This player or this player or this player,’” Marinovich said. “But he’s got integrity. He’s an honest guy, and I think he’s a hell of a coach.”

Marrone protected his players, opting not to stand at the podium and disclose injuries to the media when all five former players said it would have been easy to. They lauded him for it, calling him a true players’ coach.

And after the season, when Marrone was again presented with an opportunity to explain exactly the type of medical hardships the 2011 Orange team faced, he declined once more.

“It really never crossed my mind to get up there and start listing off injuries and ‘woe me’ and ‘woe this team,'” Marrone said.

He said excuses — no matter when they are made — don’t help win football games.

Instead, he created a plan to overcome the outburst of injuries that essentially crippled an entire season. Whether it works is still to be seen, but the adjustments have been made in an attempt to avoid another health meltdown.

Now he just hopes that good fortune is on his team’s side.

Said Marrone: “I give a lot of credit to those players. They went out there and played as hard as they could.”

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