APRIL 25, 2015
Herd lineman comes back…
(From Apr. 18, 2015)
By GRANT TRAYLOR
…from The Herald Dispatch
HUNTINGTON – This spring it hasn’t been rare to see Marshall University football assistant coach Alex Mirabal have a pointed discussion with offensive lineman Tyler Combs about technique, footwork and perfecting his craft.
Just a smile from ear-to-ear and a jog back to the huddle to do it all over again Considering where he’s been and where he almost was – out of the game of football – Combs will take that any day of the week.
“Tyler’s playing with house money in his mind,” said Mirabal, the Thundering Herd offensive line coach. “He’s very, very happy and grateful. He messes something up, I rip into his tail and he’s smiling at me because ‘Coach, I’ve been through a lot worse than what you’re trying to rip into me for.'”
Combs has had three surgeries on his right ankle, including the most recent one which left him without the ability to walk for almost a year and to the point of being medically-disqualified from football.
The 6-4, 281-pound offensive lineman is a man of steel – literally.
He has five screws and a plate in his right ankle to prove it.
So how does he react? By cracking jokes about airport security when traveling to the Boca Raton Bowl.
“When we went to the bowl game, it didn’t go off, believe it or not,” Combs said with a smile.
His easy-going demeanor has undoubtedly helped him through a process that Mirabal admitted not all teenage kids could’ve gone through.
Coming out of Lawrence County High School, the Louisa, Ky., native was the No. 22-ranked prospect in the state of Kentucky for the Class of 2012, but an ankle injury forced him to grayshirt and enroll in January 2013.
That spring, injuries along the offensive line forced him into action at backup center and he was able to get some reps and experience.
Ankle injuries, however, and subsequent surgeries plagued him once again in the fall of 2013 and he was shut down from any activity on the ankle – walking included.
Even with his easy-going demeanor, the frustration set in and nearly consumed Combs.
“Oh, there’s no question about it,” Combs said. “No question about it. With the type of surgery I had, there’s not much of a study of people playing on it afterwards. It’s just been a long road. You start back from ground zero.
“You can do all you want with your upper body, but you’re going to be off your legs. This past surgery, I was off my feet for close to a whole year without walking. It really tests your patience a lot of times. There were a lot of times I was just like, ‘I’m done. Screw it. It’s over with.’
“Once you fight through that, you realize that when you’re out here again playing, it’s really paid off. It’s been worth the wait.”
Combs’ triumph over adversity to get back on the field hasn’t just impacted him. Mirabal said it had a lasting impact on his offensive line and brought the unit closer together.
“It’s awesome and there’s a tremendous level of respect for him in the offensive line (meeting) room because those guys know what he went through,” Mirabal said. “They’ve walked those steps with him.”
Combs’ first action back on the field was in preparation for the Boca Raton Bowl at the end of the 2014 season when he got out for a few practices and tested the ankle to see how it would hold up.
It was a motivating factor and boosted him into the offseason weight training where he was able to take part at full speed for the first time since getting to campus in 2013. His bench repetitions at 225 pounds went from five to 20 because he was able to use the power in his entire body to help build strength – something that has been advantageous this spring as he gets back to drills.
Make no mistake, though, Combs isn’t near where he wants to be or where he and Mirabal think his ceiling is, but the progression is positive.
“My main goal for him – and he’s exceeding it – is that we’ve got to get this kid through 15 days of (spring) practice,” Mirabal said. “For his future to be what we want it and what he wants it to be, he cannot miss one day because he’s sore or all that stuff. Luckily, we haven’t even had to address it. He’s been out here every day and it’s been good.
“He had a day-and-a-half that were rough last week, and he’s gotten his feet back under him. They were rough in terms of performance and production, not effort on the field or attempt to be physical. Since then, he’s had a good Saturday, a good Tuesday and a good Thursday.”
Combs said he has learned a lot about his body and exactly how his legs really drive him as an offensive lineman. It was something he took for granted until the surgeries showed him the greater appreciation for leg strength.
“Honestly, I didn’t understand it either until the first surgery, second surgery,” Combs said. “You get back and your legs are as big as your arms. You really have to work a lot on footwork. That’s one of my biggest problems right now. Upper body, I’m fine with punch blocking and things like that, but really when it gets down to my legs, there’s some things I can’t do and some that I can. I just have to work on those things that I can’t do and get better.”
Right now, Combs is working at right tackle, which he said gives him an ease of mind because his surgically-repaired ankle is to the outside of the trenches which means less chance of getting rolled on.
Whether he plays 100 snaps a game or none this season, Mirabal said Combs’ perseverance to fight through so much is an inspiration and example.
“He’s just a boy that has tremendous heart,” Mirabal said. “(Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck) Heater says it all the time – the game of football rewards guys like that who play with passion and heart. That’s what he is.
“He’s a son of Marshall and a great representative of what this university is all about. He’s a blue-collar, get-after-your-tail guy that has the DNA that we want on our offensive line.”