The setting was just a table inside Crisler Arena in mid-August,
but if someone would have looked at Michigan linebacker Carl Diggs
as he sat and responded to interview requests, one would have
thought it was gametime.

Diggs sat with legs in constant motion and eyes locked on to the
person he was talking to. One might have been afraid to ask a tough
question as the answer might have involved a shoulder response
instead of a verbal one.

After Michigan’s win over Central Michigan, Diggs was seen
giving interviews again. He still looked at every reporter like a
running back coming through his lane, but he seemed to be at peace
that he had completed his first game of the 2003 season. For Diggs,
just completing a game was a step back to returning where his
season was interrupted last year.

Early in the second quarter of Michigan’s 14-9 loss to Ohio
State last season, Diggs tackled Ohio State’s Craig Krenzel on a
short-yardage play. While the play looked harmless, Diggs’ leg was
bent back by other players piling on, causing his fibula and tibia
to snap.

With that, Diggs became another statistic: the fourth Michigan
linebacker to go down to injury last season – the third to go on
the injured reserve with a leg injury. He joined Roy Manning, out
in the first game of the season; Zach Kaufman, injured at Minnesota
and Lawrence Reid, who had a blood clot in his shoulder that
knocked him out just five games into the season.

All four are back now, and their presence has surely been felt –
the four combined for 17 tackles (including two tackles for loss)
in Michigan’s 45-7 win over Central Michigan. For some it has also
altered the state of mind of those who were hurt by misfortune.

“It’s really hard to watch your team go on without you,” Kaufman
said. “Luckily I knew I had another year.”

Throughout summer training, Kaufman felt that his knee, fresh
off of rehab, was ready to go when camp started in early August.
But as Kaufman got into actual football practice, he found that his
knee was feeling residual effects from his injury on Minnesota’s
Astroturf field. Kaufman is still feeling some pain, evident in his
reduced role against the Chippewas.

“I guess that’s the difference between working out and playing
football,” Kaufman said. “There’s more to it than just
running.”

While the physical pain is one thing, the mental has been
excruciating for the senior from Claremont, Calif.

“He’s disappointed. It’s his last year and he’s never been hurt
before,” Michigan defensive tackle Norman Heuer – Kaufman’s
roommate – said. “This is your last year, and the last thing you
want to do is worry about an injury. For him, he’s just kind of
accepting it, I mean he’s doing treatment, he’s doing everything he
could possibly do. I know Zach’s a tough kid. If he can play, he’ll
play.”

Until that time comes when Kaufman can play 100-percent, he will
have to endure not only the daunting task of collegiate practices,
but also rehab.

“Rehab is difficult – not from the standpoint it’s physically
hard – but it’s tough that you have to do it, like ice four times a
day and do all your leg lifts. You put so much time into it. It’s
not physically hard, it’s just something mentally that you have to
do everyday.”

While rehab can be a boring ad repetitive process, having
someone to go through it with you is a huge pick-me-up.

“During Spring Ball, me and Carl Diggs were doing rehab
together, and it was great … not great to be injured, but to have
someone in the same situation, doing the same type of exercises and
the same type of rehab,” Kaufman said. “We really pushed each
other. If we were running laps, I’d be like, ‘One more,’ and he’d
be like, ‘One more’ on other occasions.”

There was one, though, who remained alone throughout most of his
rehab. Since Manning was the first to be injured, he was also the
first to learn the hardships that come with it.

“I went out first quarter of the first game, so I was by myself
for awhile,” Manning said. “It was tough on me mentally. I felt
like last year was my year to break out. I wish I could have been
out there because we had so many linebackers go down.”

But with so many linebackers going down meant that new ones
would be taking their place. While they weren’t as good as the
originals, the backups did give defensive coordinator Jim Hermann
four guys this season who have started at inside linebacker –
Diggs, Kaufman, Joey Sarantos and Scott McClintock. In the absence
of the starting two, the latter two combined for 57 tackles, two
tackles for loss and one interception.

So while Sarantos and McClintock played well enough last season
to be considered for starting roles this year – McClintock saw a
lot of action against the Chippewas – this is the year for hungry,
returning from injury players. If only because they saw what it was
like to be on the sidelines.

“It’s great, they can’t stop me from running,” said Manning, who
had spent a great deal of his rehab just learning to bend his knee
again. “From warm-ups down to the last sprint I’m going to be out
there running around. I know what it’s like to be watching
everybody.”

Now that he and the rest of his group is healthy, the only
watching they will be doing is from the practice and game field
itself. And to have experienced voices out there will be key for a
team that is beginning to initiate some younger guys into starting
roles (freshmen Shawn Crable and linebacker-turned-defensive end
LaMarr Woodley to name a couple).

“Tired,” Herrmann said when describing how his freshman
linebackers were handling the first days of practice. “Tired. They
learn on the run.”

Part of that learning is that mastering a playbook much larger
than what was seen in high school, and while Manning said that the
freshmen still have “brain farts” on where they should be
sometimes, there is little doubt they will become masters of the
defense.

And when the freshmen do become masters, they will join a core
of linebackers with the pass-rushing speed of Roy Manning and
Pierre Woods (defensive ends converted to linebackers), the
all-around game of Lawrence Reid, the depth of Joey Sarantos and
Scott McClintock and the heart and hustle of Zach Kaufman.

All that’s missing is a leader … oh wait. They have one of
those too.

In mid-August, Carl Diggs – along with defensive lineman Grant
Bowman and quarterback John Navarre – was named one of the captains
of the Wolverines.

“I do not have a choice but to step into that leadership role,”
Diggs said. “Being here at Michigan, every good defense had a good
middle linebacker who took on that leadership role. We are the guys
who set the tone, and that is what I am going to have to do if we
are going to have a good defense.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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