The University of Wisconsin football team scrimmaged earlier this week, and like every other practice this season, Garrett Rand could only watch from the sideline.
By this point, Rand often remains overlooked in a season full of defensive injuries for the Badgers. While he tore his right Achilles tendon many months ago, before fall camp even began, the projected starter at defensive end stands as one of the most impactful absences for a defense that took a major step back from recent years.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that looks so much fun,'” Rand said when recalling the scrimmage. “I just wanted to go. I was getting anxious. I can’t wait to put some pads on and see what I can do. … (Rehab) is just a really slow process. I didn’t realize just how slow it was actually going to be.”
Rand said the plan is for him to be back for the start of spring practice in March, but he’ll likely work in slowly — starting with strictly individual drills before gradually taking on more of a workload.
He’s currently jogging in the pool, working on his lateral mobility and re-building the strength in his calf.
“The beauty that we have right now is time,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “With the injury happening in the summer, you don’t have to rush. You can make sure you do it the right way and progress him back properly for an injury like that. I’m pleased with where he’s at. I know the trainers are excited about the way his rehab is going, and it’s his job to continue to push and get himself as good as he can for the season.”
Rand said that when the injury occurred in June during a summer conditioning drill, he knew he’d miss the entire 2018 season. He jumped over a small hurdle and planted off his right foot to accelerate forward before collapsing.
“It felt like someone kicked me in the back of the leg,” Rand said. “I was like, ‘Ah, that’s not good.'”
The first chunk of rehab involved simply letting the injury heal, and Rand said the hardest part for him came immediately after surgery when he spent much of his time stuck in bed. He said he’s “come to deal with it pretty well” and more easily accepted his situation during the third week post-surgery, when he could begin working out again.
Rand, a 6-foot-2, 278-pound former four-star recruit, played as a reserve nose guard out of necessity during his first two years at UW. Before his injury, he expected to finally show what he’s capable of at defensive end, a spot he feels suits him better.
“I’m not a nose because I’m not 340 pounds,” Rand said. “I’m 6-2, 285. That’s an end, so that’s where I thought I fit more.
“I was excited, definitely, to play end … to try something different here and see how good I did. I was curious how things would work out.”
He should finally have that opportunity in 2019. Rand didn’t redshirt as a freshman so he’ll enter next season as a redshirt junior with two years of eligibility remaining.
UW already needed to replace three senior defensive ends this past offseason, and Rand’s absence only magnified the Badgers’ inexperience at the position. Redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles made a one-year move over to defensive end this year and started seven games. Redshirt freshman walk-on Matt Henningsen also started nine games as Isaiahh Loudermilk battled through multiple injuries.
Rand could form a talented duo with Loudermilk in 2019, with rising sophomores Bryson Williams and Henningsen potentially more prepared to contribute after being thrown into the fire last season.
“(Rand) was a projected starter for this defense, and he’s made plays for us in the past,” Leonhard said. “Obviously, you take him out of the lineup for the entire season, everybody’s in a different role than they would have been. It’s unfortunate for him. You love him because of the way he works, and for him to miss an entire season, it’s tough on a guy like that. … He’s going to be hungry when he gets back, and it’s still our job to protect him and make sure he’s healthy and taking all the right steps.”