Coaches and teammates were devastated when Ryan Williams-Jenkins injured his knee severely last March.
Williams-Jenkins was having the finest spring camp of any Navy slotback and had moved into the starting lineup. The Alabama native was the type of player that everyone liked because of an outgoing personality and upbeat attitude.
"Ryan is a great, great human being. He's one of a kind, a really special kid. Very spiritual, comes from a great family," Navy slotbacks coach Danny O'Rourke said. "When he got hurt, I was probably more down and out than he was. But he came to me and said 'Coach, I'm going to be OK.' That tells you all you need to know about the kid."
Williams-Jenkins suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on March 29 and underwent reconstructive surgery on April 9. Team doctors initially told the youngster he would be fortunate to return to action toward the end of the 2013 season, if at all. From the outset, Williams-Jenkins didn't accept that prognosis, thinking he could come back sooner.
"I had great faith, and on top of that I just stayed positive about everything," he said. "Before I even had surgery, I talked to (coach Ken Niumatalolo) and my whole thing was great faith, great expectations."
Sure enough, Williams-Jenkins has authored one of the most remarkable recoveries in Division I college football. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound junior is expected to play this Saturday at Western Kentucky, less than six months after undergoing major knee surgery.
"It's definitely amazing. Five or six months is pretty darn quick as far as coming back from knee surgery goes," said Dr. Jeff Fair, Navy's director for sports medicine. "I think a couple things came into play with Ryan. One is his determination and two is his work ethic. I think that combination has helped propel Ryan back to the field so fast."
There have been a couple high-profile cases of football players returning to the field incredibly quickly following knee surgery. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III both played in National Football League games roughly six months afterward. Fair pointed out that Griffin and Peterson are elite athletes and cautioned that such a condensed timetable is usually unrealistic.
"Some people respond well while others don't. Every surgery is different, everybody's knee is different and everybody's tissue is different. Everybody's ability to work hard for a long period of time is different," Fair said.
Based on standard protocol for an ACL surgery, which sets certain benchmarks and timetables, Williams-Jenkins has resumed live contact two months earlier than expected.
"What's happened with Ryan is that he's progressed faster than normal because he's healed better and worked harder," Fair said. "The surgery went well, he has good tissue and a burning desire to get back. It's rare for someone to maintain that drive to stick with an intense rehab program for six straight months."
Williams-Jenkins praised the efforts of Navy's training staff, particularly assistant Brian Simerville. He received regular encouragement from his parents, Michael and Adena Jenkins.
"It was probably my support system - my family, my friends - everyone just praying for me. And of course the trainer who worked with me every day," he said. "Brian worked me hard and made sure I was doing everything to the best of my ability. I had to make an everyday commitment."
Fair said Williams-Jenkins is still experiencing some soreness in the left knee and said practice is not a definitive barometer for whether a player is ready for game action.
"I don't care how good your rehab program is, you can't duplicate someone running the football and getting clobbered by someone else," Fair said. "What I've told the coaches is that once a player has his confidence back, he's OK to play. What's most important is for a player to be confident that he can do what he needs to do."
Williams-Jenkins, a native of Helena, Ala., played in all 13 games last season - primarily on special teams. The speedster had 10 kickoff returns for 223 yards and showed playmaking ability as a slot with a 33-yard run and 22-yard reception. O'Rourke said Williams-Jenkins remains one of the most athletic players on the team and has already earned his way back into the slotback rotation.
"Ryan's been an inspiration to all of us with the way he's stayed positive and kept working," O'Rourke said. "It's not a fluke that he's come back so fast. He's worked really hard and pushed himself in rehab."
Williams-Jenkins returns at an opportune time as Navy starting slot Geoffrey Whiteside suffered a leg injury in practice last week and probably will not play against Western Kentucky. Williams-Jenkins could replace Whiteside as the team's secondary kickoff returner alongside Marcus Thomas while serving as a reserve slot.
"So when I step on that field on Saturday I'll just be happy to play because I'm not going to take anything for granted anymore. The main thing is that I'm appreciative to play," he said.