LARAMIE — Wyoming hasn’t been a stranger to significant injuries this season.
It started in the spring when offensive lineman Gavin Rush (knee) sustained his second season-ending injury in as many seasons. Quarterback Sean Chambers (knee) is sidelined for the rest of the season as are offensive lineman Eric Abojei (knee) and running backs Trey Smith (ankle) and Titus Swen (knee), though it’s possible the latter two could return for a bowl game.
Offensive linemen Zach Watts and Alonzo Velazquez weren’t going to play the rest of this season either. At least that was the fear.
Velazquez, who missed the second half of last season with an OCD lesion, started the season back at right tackle and got through the first three games before sustaining another knee injury against Tulsa. Watts was on the mend with Rush in the spring, suffering a dislocated kneecap that Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said then would cost the Cowboys’ redshirt freshman guard the entire season.
Bohl also voiced concern that Velazquez’s injury, which was aggravated against San Diego State in early October, would cost the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder the rest of his junior season. Instead, both are back in action.
Velazquez and Watts returned against Utah State on Nov. 16 and were back in the starting lineup last week against Colorado State. Watts was back at left guard, where he started the last three games of last season. He had returned to practice the week before, but the Cowboys’ trip to Utah State was Watts’ first time playing in a game since.
“I felt like I was true freshman taking snaps again,” Watts said. “During practice, I was trying to get all the technique back and everything. It was tough. It was really tough. But it’s definitely a blessing to be back.”
Watts said he’s dislocated his kneecap before, but not to the extent he did early in the spring during a goal-line drill. He was hit low and high on the same play. This time, it did major damage to cartilage and tendons.
“I kind of folded,” Watts said. “It was brutal. Didn’t feel great.”
You have free articles remaining.
Watts underwent microfracture surgery and spent the rest of the spring and summer rehabbing. He also added 15 pounds to his 6-3, 285-pound frame with his workouts as he continued to try to get his knee back to full strength.
Watts said he began running about four months after surgery, but it wasn’t until he began making football moves again without any pain that he started to think he might be able to get back on the field this season.
“I was running, cutting and doing just about everything as if I was playing but not playing,” he said. “So we kind of reached that six-and-a-half month point and just said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a try.’ Might as well do some individuals (drills) and stuff like that. My knee just kept progressing, and everything started to just keep getting better.”
As for Velazquez, his injury didn’t turn out to be as serious as originally thought. After undergoing an MRI, Velazquez said doctors feared he had a meniscal root tear, which would require major surgery in order to be repaired followed by eight months of recovery.
Turns out it was a tear that only required a minor procedure. He had that done during Wyoming’s second bye week in early November and missed the Boise State game before returning to the field two weeks ago.
“It was some good news,” Velazquez said. “I missed the second half of last year, and you don’t want to do it again. You don’t even want to do that the first time, but if you have to do it again, I think mentally I was ready to support my teammates and all of that. But thank goodness it was just minor so I could be back out there with my brothers.”
Their returns have bolstered the Cowboys’ depth up front. Keegan Cryder, Patrick Arnold and Logan Harris were the only interior offensive linemen left with game experience once Abojei went down against SDSU as true freshman Latrell Bible was forced into the rotation. Redshirt freshman Frank Crum filled in for Velazquez, but Velazquez’s absence left no one other than Crum and left tackle Rudy Stofer that had played significant snaps at the position.
They’ve helped pave the way for two more 100-yard rushing performances for Xazavian Valladay, who has had five such games in a row. Valladay ran for 154 in Wyoming’s 17-7 win over rival Colorado State last week as the nation’s 21st-ranked rushing attack racked up 192 more yards.
“I think that’s really helped solidify things, especially having some more depth at those spots,” Bohl said. “That was certainly helpful in that game. We needed to be able to control the line of scrimmage, and we were able to do so.”
Velazquez and Watts have combined to miss 20 games since last season. Watts said he still experiences some mild soreness from time to time, but both are getting back to full strength and trying to make up for lost time.
“(The rehab) is just time-consuming,” Velazquez said. “I try not to think about it, but when I’m out there on the field, the only thing I’m worried about is getting my team a W. If I get hurt again, I get hurt. But I’m going to be out there for my boys.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.