MOSCOW, Idaho – Two seasons ago, Dylan Thigpen was a breakout star in Idaho spring football.
Every practice, Thigpen pressed the defense. In a notable run in a scrimmage, he cleared a gap in the middle of the line and outran pursuers for a 67-yard touchdown.
His depth chart ascent, however, came to an instant halt early in the spring game when Thigpen absorbed a devastating hit to his right knee. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus – nearly all the supporting structure of the joint. His knee, at that point, was pretty much held together with hope.
Even hope took a subsequent hit when Dr. Patrick McCulloch, a noted Houston-area surgeon who repaired Thigpen’s knee, cautioned him that he might not make it back from such an injury.
Thigpen sat out the 2018 season. Last spring, while the rest of the Vandals practiced football, Thigpen worked agility drills on the sidelines with a trainer. He was finally cleared to return to play this summer.
Early in practice Tuesday, the Vandals running backs did a drill that required them to move laterally and turn upfield. Thigpen was distinctive in the group for the black brace over leggings he wore on his knee. But when it was his turn, he changed directions with a jump cut, a move that requires knees to absorb considerable force.
“That’s what we’re talking about. That’s the stuff he needs to do,” running backs coach Brian Reader said.
From the despairing days after the injury through the tedium of small recovery gains – like being able to stand without a full length leg brace and crutches a month after surgery – Thigpen, a redshirt junior, has done what he needed to return to the Vandals – not so much patiently as doggedly.
“Not rushing it has been the hard part,” Thigpen said.
He said watching from the sidelines as the Vandals practiced in spring “was nothing but motivation to me.”
Thigpen continues to feel twinges in his knee and must remind himself not to favor it.
“I’m still a little nervous,” Thigpen said after the Vandals began contract work this week. “(The injury) was such a big part of my life for a year.”
The team practiced in shoulder pads and helmets Tuesday, which limited hitting to upper-body, pad-on-pad knocks, but still enough to jar people off their feet.
“It was my first time taking a hit in a year,” Thigpen said. “It took a few reps, then I thought, ‘OK, this is football. I’m a football player. Let’s get it.’ ”
It’s another big step in Thigpen’s return, according to Reader, who said Thigpen needs to regain confidence in his knee.
Thigpen said he needed Reader “to believe in me, to let me know it was OK to struggle a little bit if I was not quite ready for things.”
Even now, Thigpen’s running is more determined than explosive.
“Now and then I feel a glimpse of something I used to have,” he said. Reader believes Thigpen can return to being the runner he was two years ago.
“It will just take him this camp to find that again, that burst. I think it will come back real quick,” Reader said.
The mechanics of playing running back never left. Thigpen still runs with a forward lean, leading with his pads. He quickly gets a good angle on pass blocks.
“He has experience and he knows the offense,” Reader said.
Thigpen knows he is going to have an ongoing relationship with Idaho’s training staff to manage his traumatized knee. He is thankful for the care and feels it is a small price to pay to continue playing.
“I would have missed the camaraderie,” he said of the prospect of giving up football . “The locker room after practice or a game, you can’t replicate that.”
The common goal is to have Thigpen at 100 percent by Idaho’s opening game against Penn State.
“(He has) fantastic vision,” Reader said. “He can see holes, make cuts. That’s the old Dylan right there.
“My goal is for him to be Dylan Thigpen before we play Penn State, to be comfortable playing fast and hard. We’re real close to it.”
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