The best part now is just to understand I can do it, I can be out there. When I tore my ACL, I thought I’d lost everything and I needed to get back out here. —Jacob Jimenez
It’s been a year since BYU offensive lineman Jacob Jimenez dropped into that dark vortex football players know as facing a serious, season-ending injury.
It was a beautiful sunny Friday in St. George where the team had bused down to put on an exhibition practice session March 17, 2017, at Dixie High School, an event that drew 5,000 fans. There were booths selling snacks and school gear. Optimism hovered all around the grounds as autographs and photo opportunities came easily. There were smiles all around.
Except for Jimenez.
During a short scrimmage, Jimenez crumpled to the turf. He’d torn his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL). He would be done for the rest of spring, summer, and miss the 2017 season after surgery.
It was an experience football players dread but know may come at any time.
“I’m trying to get back. I’m a year out. It’s been long and kind of hard dealing with my third coaching staff,” said Jimenez on Friday, one week after being cleared to participate in spring drills.
“To not being able to be out there with my team has been very hard. The best part now is just to understand I can do it, I can be out there. When I tore my ACL, I thought I’d lost everything and I needed to get back out here.”
What kept Jimenez afloat the past year is the tangible bond he had with his teammates — to be around them, and that camaraderie lifted him up.
“The way I mentally stayed in it is I stayed around the team and helped as much as I could even though I wasn’t contributing much. Just kind of kept with it. I feel good. I still have a long way to go but I’m on the right track.”
Jimenez is a soft-spoken 6-foot-5, 300-pound utility lineman who can play center or guard. It is players like Jimenez who gives BYU depth, experience and polish. He gives new offensive line coach Ryan Pugh another choice, another body.
“They’ve kind of limited my reps, just trying to bring me back slowly and not force me so I get hurt. Coach (Jeff) Grimes and Pugh have really been careful in understanding the process. They know I am not fully a hundred percent. Probably 95, but I’m working through it. Overcoming the mental hump of coming back from injury, I’m having hesitations, but it is part of the process and they’ve been working with me.”
The comeback trail is always filled with a tinge of fear because confidence is something earned along the recovery trail. Jimenez said he experienced that Friday in the first major scrimmage of spring.
“I think it showed a little bit today trying to be one of the best five. Of course, I want to be one of the best five, but I have to remember, I am coming back. These coaches are so in-depth and detailed, they are going to make sure they have the best five on the field whether it is me or not. I believe that wholeheartedly.
“I have little aches and pains all over some of the time, mainly in the knee. A couple of days ago I was trying to get my mind into it, saying, ‘OK, I’m hurting but in the overall scheme of things it isn’t going to matter if I don’t do things right and I psyched myself up.’ I’m cautious with it. I try to maintain a level head and understand I’m getting better and every day is a new day. I just try to perform and do a better job.”
One thing that’s inspired Jimenez is Grimes and the understudy he brought in to coach the offensive line, Pugh, once a team captain as a center at Auburn.
“I love them. Actually, this coaching staff reminds me of coach Mendenhall’s staff. They are really intense and pay attention to every detail, the expectations and accountability levels are really high.
“Coach Pugh and coach Grimes are very, very direct and they will work with you. They’ll sit there and after 20 minutes they’ll go up and say, ‘here’s how to do things.’ And they’ll be there and be sure you do it right. They won’t move on until you do it the right way and that’s something I really like about this coaching staff. They bring energy. At times when we don’t show or have the right energy, days when we aren’t bringing it or are having a slow day, these guys are adamant. They are out there yelling, getting energized, whooping and hollering and it’s just awesome. I’ve never felt energy like this before.”
What has surfaced in BYU’s spring camp so far is the offensive linemen are literally setting the tone of every session. It was planned that way.
“Oh, yeah. From day one, coach Pugh came in and said, ‘Once this group leads, then everything will start to move in the direction it is supposed to.’ These guys, James Empey and Tristen Hoge have taken charge and essentially we have all become leaders and everyone has followed suit.”
Indeed, if Pugh doesn’t transform Jimenez and the others into a major force on the field, it doesn’t matter what offensive style Grimes deploys or what plays are called. It starts up front.
Jimenez is on the path back. He isn’t completely back yet, but at least he is geared up and hitting people. That is a world away from where he was in St. George a year ago, lying on the field, his world crashed down around him.
“Don’t give up,” he said, “That’s the moral of the story. I have to remind myself it is only spring ball. A lot can happen from spring to fall, a lot can change. The moral of the story for me is to just understand what I need to do, don’t lose faith and understand things will work out.”