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Football – Wisconsin Athletics – Inside the Huddle: For Neuville, little steps a big deal


BY MIKE LUCAS Senior Writer

MADISON, Wis. — During his exacting rehabilitation from knee surgery, a process that taxed his patience and tested his resilience, Wisconsin tight end Zander Neuville outsourced inspiration.

“I got to the point where every day I was looking up articles online about ACL rehab and guys that have come back from it, whether in the NFL or college,” said Neuville, a fifth-year senior.

“I would try to gain some kind of knowledge that I could use to help me or mentally get me in a better place … Every day, I’d be looking at the calendar and marking off each month of rehab.”

Every day, he would find reasons to be optimistic.

On one such day, Neuville found a story on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tore his ACL and MCL in early December of 2013.

Gronk’s recovery was encouraging to Neuville in that he got back on the field and returned to All-Pro form less than 12 months later with 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns.

After coming across a plethora of internet examples on ACL reconstruction, Neuville said, “A lot more guys have gone through it than people realize. There was one that really surprised me.”

It hit much closer to home, too, for the Waupaca native. In the 2006 Capital One Bowl, former UW All-American tackle Joe Thomas tore his ACL while playing on defense against Auburn.

Any thoughts of leaving school early and declaring for the NFL draft were pretty much wiped out for Thomas. But he bounced back as a senior and was still selected in the first round, No. 3 overall.

Thomas, who’s now retired and living in Madison, went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns, starting 167 straight games and playing 10,363 consecutive snaps.

Don’t misunderstand Neuville’s intentions. He wasn’t putting himself in the same category as Gronkowski and Thomas as transcendent players. But he was using their narratives for inspiration.

“You can come back,” he kept telling himself, “and you can play at an extremely high level.”

That was reinforced in his own locker room by linebackers Jack Cichy and Chris Orr. Both could speak to what he was going through — the highs and lows, the milestones and setbacks.

Cichy tore his ACL during training camp last August and missed the 2017 season. Orr tore his ACL on the first defensive snap against LSU in the 2016 opener and missed the remainder of the season.

Since then, Cichy made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as a sixth-round pick; Orr is now a redshirt junior and the No. 3 inside linebacker in a rotation with T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly.

“If I was ever feeling down or just questioning the rehab and if I was ever going to make progress in a certain area,” Neuville said, “I’d usually reach out to one of those two guys.

“They could guide me and give me advice on what they did. They’d tell me what they went through and the stuff that they did to help them get over certain things. Those guys were great with me.”

Neuville was injured in the Nov. 25 regular-season finale at Minnesota. So was tailback Bradrick Shaw, who tore the ACL in his left knee. That was the genesis of their rehab partnership.

“Bradrick and I became really close,” said Neuville, who’s a class ahead of Shaw, a redshirt junior from Birmingham, Alabama. “We’ve been kind of going through the same things, step by step.”

Although it would have made for a good story, it was unrealistic to think that both would get to the finish line at the same time in their recovery. Shaw has yet to return to practice.

“Everyone rehabs at a different pace,” Neuville reasoned. “I try to reach out to Brad; I talk to him a lot. I just let him know, ‘You’ll get there.’ I’m just trying to remind him that he will be back healthy. It’s just going to take some time.

“It’s never going to be a perfect road back from rehab. You have to be there for your teammate and stay positive throughout it.”

Asked if there was one thing that he learned about himself over the last 10 months, Neuville said, “I realized that making little steps was actually a big deal.

“I’m always the kind of person if I get injured or something goes wrong, I want to fix it right away. This is an injury that forces you to appreciate the little steps. It’s such a mental battle.”

Neuville was hoping to play in the season opener against Western Kentucky. But he tweaked his hamstring in training camp and he felt that it was more prudent to give everything a little more time.

Last Saturday, he returned to action against New Mexico at Camp Randall Stadium.

“It felt amazing to run out again with my teammates,” he said.

On whether it was a case of knocking off the rust, a worn but applicable cliché, he nodded and said, “That’s definitely a good way to put it … I felt like I got better as the game went on.

“I felt good running around. But it was getting used to hitting guys — shooting my hands tight with good footwork. If you don’t play for awhile, it’s easy to lose that.”

Neuville, a converted defensive lineman, is the most efficient blocker among the tight ends.

“The big thing for me last week was just my hands,” he said. “I’ve never been afraid to go and hit a guy. But it’s more about hitting and connecting with my hands in the right spot. Mostly technique.

“Those are little details that the average person might not think about much. But when you get in a game and lose a block, it usually comes down to one of those things.”

Neuville will have his hands full Saturday when matched against BYU defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, a towering 6-foot-9, 280-pound defensive end.

The 25-year-old Kaufusi has an interesting background. For three seasons, he was a reserve on the Cougars basketball team (averaging 3.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 14.2 minutes).

His dad (Steve) coached the defensive line and was on the BYU staff for 16 years. He left the program in January. His mom (Michelle) is the first female mayor of Provo, Utah.

His older brother (Bronson) was a third-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens. He recently signed with the New York Jets. His younger brother (Devin) is his freshman backup at defensive end.

Yet another Kaufusi, Isaiah, is a cousin and a linebacker for the Cougars.

Neuville doesn’t know much about the family history. But he recognizes the challenge that Corbin Kaufusi poses because of his length and athleticism.

“Even for a D-end, he’s a giant,” he said. “It will be a great test because he’s a guy that you just can’t outmuscle. You have to have good technique. You have to stay in a base. You have to be low.”

You also have to be thankful, Neuville hinted. Thankful to be in back in uniform taking on such tests again after rehabbing from knee injury.

“I’m thankful for everyone in my family and our football program,” he said. “This isn’t an injury you can get through on your own or by just being tough. I appreciate football a lot more now.”

First and 10: BYU

1. Mangum Magic? In 2015, quarterback Tanner Mangum connected on a 42-yard Hail Mary to Mitch Matthews on the final play for a shocking win at Nebraska. The following week, he threw a 35-yard TD pass on fourth down with less than a minute left to beat Boise State.

2. Mangum missed six games last season because of injuries, including a 40-6 loss to the Badgers. Replacing him was Beau Hoge, whose dad, Merrill, was a former NFL running back. Hoge, who’s now a Wildcat QB and tailback, was 11-of-20 for 111 yards and 2 picks against Wisconsin.

3. Kalani Sitake, the first Tongan head coach in college football, reshuffled his staff during the offseason, firing offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, a BYU icon and Heisman winner. The new play-caller is Jeff Grimes, who was the run game coordinator and offensive line coach at LSU.

4. Wide receiver Dylan Collie is a graduate transfer from Hawai’i, where he had 118 career receptions for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. He played against the Badgers in 2015. Collie is one of nine BYU players whose fathers also played for the Cougars. So did both older brothers.

5. Tailback Squally Canada (5-11, 205), who ran for three touchdowns in a season opening win at Arizona, led the team in rushing last season with 120 carries for 710 yards, highlighted by a personal-best 213 yards against UNLV. Canada started his career at Washington State.

6. As one of only six FBS independents (Notre Dame, Liberty, UMass, Army and New Mexico State are the others), BYU has taken on an ambitious schedule featuring eight bowl teams from 2017 and road trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah.

7. Last season, tight end Matt Bushman earned freshman All-America honors after catching at least one pass in every game and finishing with 49 catches for 520 yards and three TDs. In June, he married volleyball player Emily Lewis, whose dad, Chad, is a former BYU and NFL tight end.

8. Both head coaches, Sitake (a three-year starter at fullback) and Paul Chryst (a quarterback/tight end), are alums. Moreover, UW has five alums among its 11 full-time coaches and 12 alums on the staff, while BYU has 18 former players on the football and administrative staff.

9. Since 1976, BYU has had 13 different QBs throw for at least 3,000 yards in a season (Wisconsin has had one, Russell Wilson). Detmer, who did it three times, is No. 1 on the list with 5,188 yards, followed by Jim McMahon (4,571), Robbie Bosco (4,273) and Steve Sarkisian (4,027).

10. The Cougars have named eight captains that will rotate for the coin toss throughout the season. Among them defensively are linebackers Sione Takitaki, who led the team in tackles for loss last year (12.5); and Butch Pau’u, whose brother Neil is a receiver; they’re one of six sets of brothers playing for BYU.

Note to Quote

The last time that BYU played at Camp Randall Stadium (Nov. 9, 2013), the leading rushers were James White (23 carries for 147 yards), Melvin Gordon (19 for 86) and Jamaal Williams (14 for 76). All three are now in the NFL; White with the Patriots, Gordon with the Chargers and Williams with the Packers. The Badgers won, 27-17, behind quarterback Joel Stave, who completed 23 of 31 passes for 196 yards. His favorite target was Jared Abbrederis, who had eight catches for 67 yards. Abbrederis will be Wisconsin’s honorary captain for Saturday’s game.

Quote to Note

On blocking for tailback Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for a career-high 253-yards against New Mexico, Neuville said, “I had a couple of blocks where I felt 23 (Taylor) come right off my block and I think I was more excited than he was when he hit a big run. He’s great at setting up blocks. His balance is unreal when he’s making cuts, and then there’s his acceleration. Once he sees where he’s going, or he knows where he wants to go, he’s got a different gear. One minute, you’ll be blocking a guy and the next thing you know he’s cutting off your block and he’s 10 yards downfield.”

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