SCOTT: SEC News & Notes

As the heat and the hitting takes its toll, injuries only add to the challenges facing coaches and players during the demands of preseason practice. Most of the injuries – the sore ankles, the strained hamstrings, the bruised thighs and shoulders – will heal up when the coaches cut back on contact the week before the season the season opener.

Some injuries can take a real toll on a player and his team, forcing him to miss significant practice time that will slow the player's development and disrupt the growth and progress of the team.

 

And then there's Kentucky's starting center, Matt McCutchan.

 

Matt McCutchan had to miss practice one day last week after a piece of chicken got stuck in his throat.

 

"I swallowed the piece of chicken, and it went past my windpipe and got lodged into my esophagus," McCutchan told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "I wasn't too scared; I could breathe fine. But I couldn't swallow, and I couldn't puke it out. Nothing would go down. No spit would go down, and there was secretion coming out."

 

It turns out McCutchan has a narrow esophagus that sometimes causes him problems with food. Fortunately for McCutchan he was able to return to the practice field the next day, but only after he spent five hours in an emergency room having his throat worked on.

 

"I've had guys choke on their food before, but I've never had anyone get their throat scoped," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.

 

For a Kentucky team that suffered through a multitude of injuries last season, leading to the loss of several key players and 31 surgeries, choking on chicken doesn't seem all that bad, especially when McCutchan missed only day of practice.

 

"Stuff like this usually only happens to 80-year-old men," said McCutchan, who is 25 years old.

 

The worst part of the "injury" was the abuse McCutchan will have to take from his teammates.

 

"I think 'Cutch' could probably apply for elderly discounts, get a disability check, get a handicap pass, all that good stuff that comes with being over 55 years old," senior guard Mike Aitcheson told the Herald-Leader. "Before practice, 'Cutch' has to get his toe taped, his ankle taped, his fingers taped. He wears knee braces. He looks like a mummy by the time practice starts."

 

When McCutchan returned to the training table the next night, guess what his teammates were eating?

 

Yes, chicken.

 

"I'm watching guys at dinner last night, and they're taking bites three times the size of mine," McCutchan said. "I think I'm going to be a vegetarian."

 

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Around the rest of the SEC the injury situation is more serious. That's been particularly true at Auburn, where the length of the injury list forced the Tigers to cancel a scrimmage planned for Saturday.

 

The Tigers have been especially slowed by injuries among the offensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs, and then their only experienced receiver, senior Courtney Taylor, suffered a knee injury during last Friday's practice that sent a scare throughout the team.

 

Fortunately for Taylor, and the Tigers, his knee is only bruised and strained and he should be back by the time you read this, but Auburn is finding out how difficult it can be to make progress when several significant players, including starting center Joe Cope and five other offensive linemen, are spending most of their practice time on the sidelines.

 

"It's tough to scrimmage without an offensive line," coach Tommy Tuberville said.

 

The Tigers haven't suffered any long-term injuries – yet – but considering the holes they must fill along the offensive line as well as linebacker, defensive back and receiver, those four areas are exactly the places where the team needs the most work and the most improvement.

 

"It can't set you back. You can't slow down what you're doing based on who is there and who is not there," said first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, a former LSU defensive coordinator under Nick Saban. "You've got to continue to coach the guys who are there, and it's your job as a coach to make sure you're not doing too much with the kids you've got."

 

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While Kentucky's McCutchan is certainly the owner of the weirdest SEC injury of the season, Arkansas' Darren McFadden is the source of the most unnecessary and foolish injury of the year.

 

McFadden, a sophomore tailback who rushed for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman, suffered a broken toe in a fight outside a club in the early morning hours of July 29. The injury led to surgery and he will most likely miss the season opener against Southern California on Sept. 2.

 

While the Razorbacks are fortunate to have two other capable backs in sophomore Felix Jones and versatile junior Peyton Hillis, McFadden is the kind of back that would make any team immediately better. His absence will be felt in many ways, especially as the Hogs prepare for a USC team that whipped them 70-17 last season.

 

"Hearing about his injury just made me sick," Hillis said. "It's just a bad thing for a guy like him to go down."

 

McFadden isn't alone on the injury list. The Razorbacks have no depth behind Jones and Hollis, who has spent most of his career at fullback, and talented redshirt freshman Michael Smith continues to be limited by injury problems. Smith suffered a pulled hamstring in preseason last fall and sat out the season while McFadden and Jones emerged as Arkansas' best backs.

 

The Razorbacks also held their first major scrimmage of the preseason last week without sophomore quarterback Casey Dick, who finished the 2005 season as Arkansas' starter.

Dick has missed significant practice time due to a back injury he originally suffered during spring practice, further hindering Arkansas' search for a starting quarterback in a new offense. Dick entered the preseason battling junior Robert Johnson and highly regarded true freshman Mitch Mustain for the starting job.

 

With Dick on the sidelines, coach Houston Nutt had to have Johnson and Mustain placed in caution jerseys for a scrimmage. He's also been forced to forgo his original plan for choosing a starter.

 

"I've got to wait for Casey Dick," Nutt said. "Give him a fair opportunity, so that might change."

 

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Sometimes injuries aren't the real problems. Sometimes they only become problems when an original starter is suspended.

 

That's the case at Georgia, where would-be starting cornerback Thomas Flowers has joined starting offensive tackle Daniel Inman, backup center Ian Smith and backup linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on the list of suspended Bulldogs who will miss the first two games of the season.

 

Missing the Sept. 2 season opener against Western Kentucky isn't so bad, but the Bulldogs will play a dangerous game at South Carolina on Sept. 9 with some real concerns about their offensive line and secondary. Flower is also Georgia's top punt returner.

 

Flowers still faced plenty of competition from true freshmen Asher Allen and Prince Miller, as well as sophomore Ramarcus Brown and redshirt freshman Bryan Evans, so the Bulldogs may get by at cornerback without Flowers. Allen, who enrolled early and made a positive impression in spring practice, showed a knack for returning punts in the spring, so the Bulldogs might not miss Flowers in the return game, either.

 

The situation isn't so certain on the offensive line, where the Bulldogs are attempting to replace three starters. Without Inman for the first two games, Georgia has just two experienced tackles, Michael Turner and Ken Shackleford. If either player were to go down with an injury, the Bulldogs will be forced to move starting tight guard Chester Adams will move back to tackle, where he played as a freshman. Then backup split guard Zeb McKinzey will move to tight guard. Behind Adams and McKinzey the remaining depth is perilously thin and inexperienced.

 

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Adams spent part of last week on crutches due to a hip injury and McKinzey missed a significant amount of practice time with a recurring shoulder injury.

 

"They can't get hurt," offensive line coach Neil Callaway said. "If they get hurt, they've still got to play."

 

Receiver is another concern for Georgia. With Sean Bailey likely out for the entire season due to a knee injury he suffered late last season, the Bulldogs have been looking for someone to step up opposite Mohamed Massaquoi. Junior T.J. Gartrell was showing signs of becoming that receiver until last week when he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

 

"He was having a heck of a camp," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Unfortunately, he's not going to be able to play this year."

 

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Tennessee is counting on more depth behind tailback Arian Foster this season but it's not going to come without some challenges. Redshirt freshman Montario Hardesty's recovery from multiple knee surgeries has met with some resistance and the Vol coaches and trainers are having to be extra cautious with his return. Another redshirt freshman, LaMarcus Coker, missed some practice time and wore a protective boot due to a bruise on his left foot.

 

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Not all of the news from SEC camps is bad news. At Florida, the return of junior receiver Andre Caldwell is one of the best stories of the preseason.

 

Caldwell was supposed to play a big part in coach Urban Meyer's spread option as both a receiver and runner last year, but he suffered a broken femur bone in his upper right leg against Tennessee and missed the rest of the season.

 

Now he's back and looking better than ever, even running the 40-yard dash in 4.29 seconds last week.

 

"Any time there is a severe injury, you always worry about that," Meyer said. "Once you got to know him and his family, I knew he'd be back. I'm awfully pleased."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and a guest columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.

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