ORLANDO, Fla. — There were several moments this year that Thad Randle can remember wondering if his season was over.
He'd be struggling to stand on the field and the trainers would rush out to help him to the sideline. Sometimes Randle put one arm over the shoulder of one NU staffer and another around a second guy. Those agonizing walks toward the bench, when a wincing Randle couldn't put any pressure on his right knee, never looked too promising.
Somehow Randle always came back. Never at full strength, but the Husker coaches decided that a hobbled and experienced junior defensive tackle was often a better option than an unprepared freshman.
So Randle kept playing.
“I just need to calm down. Sometimes the pain, it'll just shoot up. Real bad,” Randle said before taking a deep breath. “So I'll sit down for a little bit. It'll still hurt, but not as much as it did at first, so I just try to go out there.”
Randle could have taken a few weeks off during league play, but he didn't want to abandon his team. He might need surgery at the end of the year — he'll undergo an MRI exam to reevaluate the knee.
It was the same knee that ended his sophomore season. His PCL was healing, but his MCL required surgery. That was about 14 months ago.
“It's been rough,” Randle said. “It's all worth it, though.”
Worth it, because he knows he's still a valued member of the team.
Sophomore Chase Rome said Randle's positivity and leadership have inspired the entire position group. His perseverance is contagious as well, though that sometimes makes it difficult for defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski to manage. Kaczenski's often the one holding Randle out, just to be safe.
“It's being smart,” Kaczenski said.
If Randle's knee was at all sore after game day, he'd miss the first two practices of the next week. He sat out the more physical drills. And on humid mornings in Orlando, he was told to watch from the sideline at times because of the slippery grass surface.
“He's proven he's tough,” Kaczenski said. “We're not questioning his toughness.”
But lately, Randle's been feeling better. He underwent rehab treatment for the knee early in the month. He's practiced more and more since.
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A good portion of Nebraska's defensive game plan for Georgia on Tuesday hinges on the 6-foot-1, 295-pound Randle, despite his unpredictable health. Without senior Baker Steinkuhler in the lineup, Rome and the undersized Cameron Meredith can't be asked to play every down.
“We're counting on Thad to play a bulk of the snaps for us inside,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
At least 30 snaps, Papuchis hopes.
Randle wants to do more.
“I'm going all the way this game. It's the last game. I ain't got no choice,” Randle said. “As much as I can give. Until it gives out on me.”
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