Blaine Irby starting Saturday against Rice

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Blaine Irby hauls in a pass during a 2008 game against UTEP. The tight end has missed nearly three seasons with a knee injury. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Chris Kominczak | Daily Texan Staff

With the release of head coach Mack Brown’s fluid depth chart for the game against Rice on Saturday, most people in college football were buzzing about his decision to start junior Garrett Gilbert at quarterback for the first game despite his abysmal stats from the 2010 season.

However, if you read beyond the line that corresponds to the quarterback position, one addition to the depth chart may seem surprising — the inclusion of senior Blaine Irby at H-back on the first team offense.

Most of the upperclassmen on the 40 Acres remember when Irby was injured in the game against Rice back in September of 2008. The highly talented tight end out of California had his leg trapped between the field and an Owl defender, dislocating his knee.

The injury was so traumatic that his doctors and the athletic training staff at Texas were not sure he would even walk normally again. Irby tore several key ligaments in his right knee and lost feeling in his right leg because of several pinched nerves.

After several years of intense physical therapy, Irby can not only walk normally but has returned to full strength and will see the field for the game this Saturday.

“We’re thoroughly excited about Blaine playing,” said Jeff Madden, assistant athletics director for strength and conditioning. “Blaine has done such a tremendous job all season — for three years now almost. He’s busted his tail every single day. He’s pulling on our coattails trying to get himself back out there.”

This season Irby will bring the same kind of leadership to the field he did in 2008 in addition to a work ethic that the coaches praise.

“He is a tremendous leader. The thing that’s amazing about him — I’ve never seen him get down one day throughout all of this,” Brown said. “He hasn’t missed anything. And he’s been just a tremendous influence on all the other players. I’ve seen him get more animated every single day, and [he’s] starting to become an outstanding leader.”

Everyone associated with the program is excited to have Irby back on the field this season. When Irby arrived at Texas, he immediately made a huge impact at tight end and Brown has commented that since his injury, they have had a lot of problems with consistency at that position. The coaches believe having him back is one step toward a solid offensive identity, something that was lacking in last year’s season.

His teammates are just as excited, if not more so, than the coaches.

“He’s that same violent runner and competitor Blaine has always been,” said senior Blake Gideon. “He is ready to play now, so we will play with him.”

His status as a starter on Saturday also comes with a bit of apprehension. Irby has repeatedly expressed that he’s ready and excited for Saturday, although he admits he’s a bit anxious since he hasn’t faced an actual opponent in three years. Brown, who has seen the careers of many athletes end because of injury, is perhaps more anxious than anyone and still worries about Irby being on the field.

“Every time I see him out there, I worry,” Brown said. “But he’s been released by everybody, and everybody says he’s fine. And he said to me that, ‘I really want to play. I just want to do this. I just need to do this.’ And that’s fair. That’s fair to him. He’s scrimmaged. He’s tackled. He’s been hit. He’s blocked. And I really think he’s well and very excited about next week.”

Doctors told him he would never play football again. Come Saturday, no one will be more excited than Irby.

“I’m glad to be back,” Irby said. “It’s been a long process. It’s been a really long road, but I’m just glad to be back with my teammates.”  

Printed on September 1, 2011 as: Tight end ready to take field for first time in three years