Tweaked training and tough luck: UGA looks at causes of ACL injuries, ways to avoid them

The accumulation of players forced to the sidelines last year was, at the least, a backdrop to Georgia’s football season and may have been the predominant storyline.

“Injuries on injuries,” tailback Todd Gurley called it last November.

That was even before SEC-record setting quarterback Aaron Murray was helped off the field in his home finale with a knee injury, a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his college career early.

Nobody wanted to use the injuries as a crutch, but they certainly robbed Georgia’s offense of some of its firepower with key playmakers at every skill position impacted.

So what lessons were learned from all those players missing? What changes were made this offseason in an effort to help minimize the rash of injuries that hit the Bulldogs during an 8-5 season?

Hard as it may be to believe, when director of sports medicine Ron Courson met with Georgia’s team doctors as the school year wrapped up this spring, it turned out that the team had the same number of surgeries in 2013-14 as it did the previous year — 22 — and trailed the 27 in 2011-12.

“This was real unique because the people that were injured were very high-profile,” Courson said. “Then a lot of them happened in games where they were much more visible. It really created an awareness of it.”

Georgia lost a staggering six players to season-ending ACL injuries, one in the preseason (cornerback Reggie Wilkerson) and five during the season (receiver Malcolm Mitchell, tailback Keith Marshall, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, Murray and walk-on tailback Dominic Bryan). The number of torn ACLs increases to seven when you include walk-on offensive lineman Eddie McQuillen in this year’s spring game.

Courson said it was by far the most ACL injuries he’s seen in one season at Georgia in his time with the program since 1995. It nearly matched the previous three years combined. There were four in 2012-13, three in 2011-12 and one in 2010-11.

Of course, injuries included more than just ACL tears. Gurley battled ankle and hip injuries for a good chunk of the season. Safety Tray Matthews and receiver Jonathon Rumph missed games with hamstring injuries and tight end Jay Rome with a foot injury.

“I know they always kind of blame the strength coaches or whatever we’re doing in there, but everybody does what we do,” said receiver Michael Bennett, who missed two games last season due to a torn meniscus after sustaining a season-ending torn ACL in 2012.

Georgia coach Mark Richt was asked at a UGA Day speaking stop this spring whether the strength and conditioning program or rehab program is part of the problem.

“Well, I don’t think so,” Richt said. “We do look at that all the time. We do everything we can possibly to get us strong and get them in great condition and also want to do things that aren’t hurting them or stressing them out to the point where they’re susceptible to injury. Who can predict Malcolm Mitchell chest bumping his teammate after that first touchdown of the year coming down and getting an ACL? ACL injuries, which we had a large number of … just about every one of them was a non-contact injury. For whatever reason, you turn the wrong way and get that torque going and just sometimes it goes. That’s just part of it. Some years you hardly have any and this year we had a bunch.”

***

Starting in January with the new offseason, Georgia players have undergone a series of different performance tests from Fusionetics, an injury prevention, performance and recovery program from an Atlanta-based company.

“We didn’t get this just for ACLs, we got this for everything,” Courson said.

The entire team is tested across the board seven different ways: a two-leg squat, a two-leg squat with a heel lift, a one-leg squat, push ups, shoulder movement, trunk/lumbar spine movements and cervical spine movement.

Each player gets a total “ME Score” for movement efficiency that Courson and the athletic training staff along with the strength staff use to put a player on “corrective exercises,” for individual body parts.

Scores that are acceptable are shown in green. A score in yellow is considered a caution that may be a predictor for injury. It can show deficiencies that could prevent things like rotator cuff tendonitis, an Achilles’ problem or plantar fasciitis.

Courson said there’s no predictor for an ACL injury, but if a single-leg squat shows a player doesn’t have good stability there, that could be telling.

“I can’t tell you for certain that’s going to cause them to have an ACL, but at the same point if we can address that if we can do some balance exercises, some strength exercise, hopefully we can minimize the risk,” he said.

Other changes are being implemented with an eye to minimize injuries.

Under the new NCAA rule allowing a mandatory eight hours a week of weight training and conditioning, Georgia is adding yoga and Taekwondo, which Courson said provides benefits with flexibility, core strength and motor control.

“Flexibility is really critical for a football player,” Courson said. “We’ve got a lot of very strong guys that are lifting very heavily. You’ve got to make sure that you couple the flexibility with that so they can have the range of motion. Most of the things in football you’ve got to get down to your football position and get low and synch your hips, you’ve got to have great flexibility.”

***

Marlon Brown watched what happened to him in November 2012 in his senior season befall some of his former teammates last season.

“Sometimes things just happen and it’s out of your control,” the Baltimore Ravens wide receiver said. “It is what it is.”

Brown tore an ACL on a play he said didn’t seem different than others in his career.

“It was a little same hit I’ve taken all my life, I just got hurt that time,” he said.

Georgia lost receivers Mitchell and Scott-Wesley this past season.

Mitchell was back at practice this spring, but only briefly. He sustained a left leg injury that knocked him out the rest of the spring, but he and the other players returning from major injury last season are expected to be able to resume workouts later this month.

“The position of wide receiver is an explosive, demanding position on your body,” receivers coach Tony Ball. “We talk all the time about how important it is for us to have control of our body and play with our feet underneath us so we can stay healthy while changing directions efficiently. It’s part of it. You understand it’s going to happen.”

Courson looked at the predictive factors for the ACL injuries last year, whether they were on grass or turf, contact or non-contact, game or practice.

“It was really all over the board,” he said.

Three were non-contact. Five came during a game, including tailback Marshall’s against Tennessee.

“Not a lot you can do about that when your foot’s planted in the ground and you take a hit,” Courson said. “He took a violent blow to the knee itself.”

In the same game, Scott-Wesley tore an ACL covering a punt.

“That was a classic deceleration injury,” Courson said. “You had somebody running very fast, stopped to make a change in direction very suddenly and the foot planted and it just put more stress on their knee than the ligament was designed to hold.”

Injuries can be cyclical in nature, Courson said.

He remembered several years ago there was a rash of labrum (shoulder) injuries that required eight to 10 surgeries in one season.

Last season it was ACLs that were costly on the field, but not much more in actual dollars and cents on a budget line.

Georgia spent $103,978.53 on surgeries to football players from June to December of 2013. That was up from $98,769.32 in the same period in 2012 and from $74,406.78 during that span in 2011, according to an open records request.

Team chaplain Thomas Settles spent time with players on the sidelines and in the hospital during their surgeries.

“I don’t think people remember what you say, they remember that you were there for them,” Settles said. “Some need to talk, some need to cry, some need to pray. Whatever they need, I just kind of want to be there to serve those guys.”

He also encourages them through their months of rehab trying to lift their spirits.

“It’s hard not being at practice and having to rehab every day,” he said.

Georgia certainly hopes there will be less time needed to console injured players in the season ahead.

Things like Fusionetics, yoga or Taekwondo just might help injuries that can be hard to predict.

“It’s just the luck of the draw,” Bennett said, “or unluck of the draw.”

Follow Marc online: twitter.com/MarcWeiszer

Follow marcweiszer

marcweiszer

Richt updates Sony Michel’s availability for Florida and Todd Gurley’s status (sort of) http://t.co/jZtMm6Khax

3 hours ago