LOGAN ±— By the time he takes the field for Utah State’s season opening game against Auburn on Saturday, it will have been 644 days since Robert Turbin last took the field in an Aggie uniform.
It will have been 644 days since the then-sophomore running back put together arguably the best game of his collegiate career, gaining 183 total yards en route to a five-touchdown performance in leading USU to its biggest win of the 2009 season on the road over a bowl-bound Idaho team.
It will have been 644 days, but who’s counting? The answer is Turbin himself.
“I’ve got a calendar in my room, and I just cross out every day, with the next day closer to being able to play the game that I had one time thought I lost,” Turbin said.
Following a sophomore season in 2009 where he rushed for 1,296 yards, gained another 418 yards through the air and reached the end zone 18 times total, Turbin’s 2010 season fell victim to what he personally describes as a freak injury that resulted in a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for the junior running back. With football out of the picture for a year, Turbin was faced with new challenges in rehabilitation of his injury, a temporary change of role for the USU football team and a changed perspective of what is important both in football and in life.
“It’s just been one of those things where you learn a lot from it,” Turbin said. “Sometimes life is going to hit you right in the mouth.”
Learning from it is exactly what Turbin did. Facing a lengthy rehab process and unable to make an immediate impact on the field, head coach Gary Andersen approached Turbin about trading in his shoulder pads for a headset in 2010 to make his impact felt from the sidelines. Ask Andersen what aspect developed most during that brief coaching tenure, and he’ll tell you that Turbin developed a much stronger sense of consistent leadership.
“Last when he was basically a student coach, I think he really learned how to be a consistent leader and really helped his teammates look at him as a true leader day in and day out. I don’t think you can make leaders. I think leaders are truly born, but I think you can educate young men that have an opportunity to be leaders and Robert has done a nice job in getting involved with that,” Andersen said.
Turbin credits his coaching stint for helping him see the game in a different perspective than he’d ever seen before. “Sometimes as a player you don’t always understand what coaches are seeing,” Turbin said. “I asked a lot of questions, and I was able to wear the headset and listen, and kind of learn some schemes.”
Turbin also says he learned more about film in the last year than he’d ever known before.
“My preparation, I believe, will be better because of it,” Turbin said. “I know certain things to look for that I didn’t look at before just as a player, and I think it will help me overall so hopefully it turns into great success.”
On top of coaching though, which Turbin says he’d prefer not to have to do again until after retirement, he was still faced with the tall task of being a running back on the mend from a major knee injury. Just getting back to the caliber of player that he was as a sophomore when he earned second-team all-Western Athletic Conference honors wasn’t enough for Turbin though. He has bigger plans than that, and to get his knee to where it needed to be to make those plans a reality, the rehabilitation process brought with it some high standards set for Turbin by the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, Evan Simon, and physical therapist, Lori Olson.
“You never want to be what you were. I always worked to get better than what I used to be,” Turbin said. “They pushed me a little harder so that I’d be better.”
That rehab process included taking hits to his knee from Simon swinging bags and making sharp cuts while running.
“If I wanted to play football, I had no choice but to gain confidence and do the things that you do in football so I don’t have any doubts,” Turbin said.
Now that he is back on the field, Turbin’s presence and leadership with the offense is something the entire team and coaching staff are counting on to contribute to success this season, particularly in taking pressure off whichever quarterback is named as the starter on Saturday.
Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin said, “The neat thing about this is that we’re not experienced at quarterback right now. We can put that load on the running backs.”
That’s a load Turbin is ready and willing to take on for the sake of helping the quarterbacks and helping the team.
“I’ve got to make sure that they always know that I’m right here right next to them,” Turbin said. “I’m right behind you, and I’ve got your back.”
Turbin won’t be the only one with experience helping those quarterbacks either, as senior Michael Smith also returns from an injury at running back, while juniors Kerwynn Williams and Joey DeMartino and sophomore Robert Marshall all gained valuable experience and playing time during Turbin’s absence in 2010.
Williams, who has been used as both a running back and a wide receiver on top of his kick-returning duties, said that he and the other backs took last year’s opportunity for playing time to heart to try and help the team be the best it could be. Now that opportunity is even greater with Turbin and Smith returning along with the rest of the running backs.
“This year, it’s a great opportunity for us to have all of them back, and it’s definitely going to help our team,” Williams said. “We have a lot of weapons on offense and that just makes it easier to put up points.”
The first day of training camp marked day No. 618 since Turbin’s last game action, 26 days shy of the season opener against defending national champion Auburn.
“Sometimes things go your way and sometimes things don’t,” Turbin said. “Obviously, tearing my ACL was something that didn’t go my way, and it was something that mentally I had to get through."
Only a few more Xs on the calendar and Turbin will be all the way through, officially back to doing what he loves.