Injury to Defensive Back Kegan Wirtz Proves Resilience in Bulldog Secondary
Senior Defensive Back Kegan Wirtz has been proving his abilities on the football field since the 2014 season where he saw playing time in all fourteen games, both regular and postseason, after sitting out his first year as a redshirt.
Since then, Wirtz has been steadily improving, gaining more time on the field with the Bulldog secondary and having earned a starting spot on the field at the defensive back position as a junior during the 2016 season.
Just as soon as he transformed into one of the Bulldog’s strongest defensive assets, his football season was cut short during last year’s October 29th matchup against the University of Minnesota Crookston, when a tackle gone wrong left his collarbone broken nearly in half.
This injury resulted in Wirtz undergoing an emergency surgical procedure just two days later, where a 6-inch metal plate and 10 screws were inserted into his right collarbone.
Not only did this injury impact Wirtz as an individual, but the Bulldog defense as a whole.
“I had never experienced a sports-related injury before, so this was definitely new for me. I always thought to myself if I ever had a major injury I don’t know if I’d come back after it.” Wirtz said.
With Wirtz having started in all 9 games pre-injury for the Bulldogs, they were given only one regular season game to prepare for that defensive loss before playoffs began.
Assistant coach Greg Bower has been helping with the Bulldog Defensive Backs for three years, and has been working with Wirtz since since his arrival here at UMD.
“Kegan had started the whole year with us up until the point of his injury, and he had played significant minutes the year before, so when you lose someone with that experience it’s a loss to your whole team,” Bower said. “We like to rotate a lot of guys defensively so it hurt us from a depth standpoint.”
According to Bower, a player like Wirtz is rare, bringing a special set of skills to the team with his understanding of the game from a mental standpoint only makes his absence that much more noticeable.
“When you lose a player like that out of that type of position, it puts significant pressure on the other guys behind them, for different reasons, whether it be giving different and younger guys more opportunities or forcing players to be more involved from a mental standpoint.” Bower said.
Mitchell Johnson-Martin, a standout sophomore in last season’s Bulldog secondary, was one of the younger men on the team faced with added pressure during a crucial point in the season after Wirtz’s injury.
“Kegan is always someone that if I ever have a question about anything on the defense I can go to him, and almost 100% of the time he is going to know the right answer and give me that answer, or at least try to help me out solving it,” Johnson-Martin said.
Johnson-Martin also noted the defensive shift after Wirtz was injured, saying that it was a wake-up call for many of the other members on the Bulldog defense.
“You did notice the importance that Kegan brought to our team when he was gone. I think it definitely made some younger guys step up and learn that role, maybe not to the same ability that Kegan does it, but they were able to fill in and be that next man up,” Johnson-Martin said, “it made other people kind of raise their level of expectations and abilities.
Now, five and a half months post surgery, Wirtz has been fully cleared to rejoin the Bulldogs in practice.
Coach Bower has noticed significant improvements in Wirtz since he has returned from his collarbone injury.
“At this point he has had opportunities to tackle and hit people in practice and there doesn’t seem to be any lasting effects from that injury. He’s been physical and he’s been tackling the best he has since he’s been here at UMD.” Bower said.
“The recovery process has been slow but it feels good to be back in the weight room and making full contact at practice,” Wirtz said. “At first I was nervous getting back into play, going 75-80 percent in our practice scrimmages when making tackles with my bad shoulder, but overcoming that was just part of the process.”
Wirtz is expected to make a return to the field alongside the rest of the Bulldog Football Team on Friday, April 21st for the upcoming Maroon vs. White Bulldog Spring Football game at Malosky Stadium.
Photo courtest of DJ Anding