By midmorning Monday, what was supposed to be a light practice in shorts and jerseys had become a chore. UCLA players dragged themselves across the field, completing drills as if by rote. The Bruins managed only a faint murmur instead of the usual loud echo repeating their coaches’ commands.
Coach Chip Kelly had seen enough. So had “Coach Woods.”
Kelly ordered his players to put on their pads to pick up the intensity. Woods, a.k.a. senior linebacker Josh Woods, told his teammates to savor the opportunity.
Putting on a uniform was something Woods had not been able to do for most of the last two years.
“Don’t complain,” Woods instructed the players gathered around him. “Let’s go. We’re in the pads now; we might as well go hard.”
Nobody has been more eager to go all out since training camp started than Woods. He missed the final six games of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury. After months of rehabilitation, he returned last year for the opening weeks of training camp … only to suffer torn knee ligaments that wiped out his entire 2018 season.
The repeated injuries led to some hesitation when Woods made his return late last month.
“I was nervous when the ball was snapped on the first play and we were just in helmets” without pads, said Woods, whose smarts and leadership earned him the “Coach Woods” nickname. “After that, it’s football. I was just happy. I was just running around like a little kid.”
Woods admitted that his injuries made him consider quitting football. It would have been easy for him to trade in his helmet for a baseball cap and return as a graduate assistant instead of enduring a second lengthy rehabilitation.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to do this anymore because you have those dark days and you’re just in that dark room, you can’t walk, you can’t do this and that,” Woods said. “And you’re just seeing on your phone that your teammates are on the road and you’re in the apartment by yourself and you have no friends, nobody to talk to. It’s just rough.”
Woods persevered with some help from his friends, family and teammates. Tight end Caleb Wilson’s return from a serious foot injury last season served as inspiration. As the months passed, Woods felt his hunger to play again intensify.
He returned with a bulky knee brace that he will have to wear all season, not to mention thick hair billowing out of his helmet. The hairdo was inspired by Wilson, but Woods’ teammates have started calling him “Young Simba” as a tribute to the protagonist from “The Lion King.”
Woods also has a new position, having moved from inside to outside linebacker. It’s a spot he has some familiarity with, having manned it as a sophomore, though now it involves learning the schemes favored by defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro.
Woods’ injury ordeal made him a natural advisor to linebacker Tyree Thompson, who recently underwent surgery for a foot injury. Woods assured his teammate that he would be there for him through the tough times and suggested that he maximize every opportunity in his recovery, even if it was just lifting weights with his upper body.
Knowing what it’s like to be sidelined makes Woods unwilling to tolerate grumbling from those who are able to play, a message he reinforced Monday.
“You hear his voice, he’s on the sideline trying to get all the guys to bring some juice to the defense,” linebacker Leni Toailoa said. “It’s kind of different. We needed it. We got another field general out there.”
A day after Kelly said he was pleased with his offensive line depth because of a relative lack of injuries, another player had gone down. Redshirt freshman Alec Anderson, the leading candidate to start at left tackle, was wearing a yellow jersey to signal he was recovering from an unknown injury. UCLA was already without backup center Sam Marrazzo, who recently hurt his leg and has been moving around on crutches.