Milan glad to be back for Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Milan glad to be back for Wolf Pack

If there is anybody who is thankful to be playing in Sunday’s MPC Computers Bowl game, it’s Nevada senior defensive end J.J. Milan.

The 6-5 270-pound Milan has overcome three surgeries and countless hours of rehab to reach this point. He went 621 days between games, and for an athlete, that’s an eternity.

“The only thing that matters is that I’m back,” Milan said before the team departed for Boise on Dec. 26. “I’m just thankful I got to play in this bowl game, because I missed the one last year in Hawai’i.”

Milan’s problems started in the spring of 2005.

Nevada was switching to a 3-4 defense, and Milan was penciled in to start as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. A freak incident knocked Milan out for the entire season.

“Somebody landed on the back of my foot, and it popped the whole front of my foot out,” Milan said. “I had surgery two weeks later. They put two screws in the top of my foot and I came back that fall.

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“My mom said the doctors told her that I might not be able to play again. I’d seen guys have surgery all the time. With my injury I was told they used to cut the whole front of the foot off back in the day.”

Milan came back in the fall, but on the last day of camp, his foot was stepped on, causing the screws to break. Season over.

For the second surgery, Milan went to Colorado to see Dr. Coughlin, who had a good track record working with NFL players. Coughlin did a bone graft from another part of Milan’s body and put in on the top of Milan’s foot. Milan takes great delight in showing off the scars. He had nine screws in is foot for a while.

Obviously Milan had some fears on whether he could return, but Coughlin dispelled those quickly. Milan underwent a third surgery to remove two of the screws, leaving him with seven.

“He told me I could play another 10 years,” Milan said. “I think he was just trying to make me feel good.”

The toughest thing about missing last season was not getting to be part of the Pack’s first-ever WAC championship in football.

“It was the first time I’d missed a significant amount of time,” Milan said. “I never had any injuries that sat me down in bed or put me on crutches for an extended time.

“I was just sitting there watching them win all those games; watching them beat Fresno. I was wishing I was out there helping and being part of it.”

Nevada’s coaches were certainly pulling for him to recover, but they really weren’t counting on him this year.

“As a defensive staff, we told J.J. that anything he brought to the defense was gravy,” said Marty Long, the Pack’s defensive line coach. “We were not counting on him. I guess that psychology worked for his betterment.”

When Milan came back, he wasn’t even on the depth chart. Even head coach Chris Ault said he would have to work his way back. Nothing was guaranteed.

That didn’t deter Milan. He kept working hard day after day, never losing focus. Milan said he’d be in position of having to prove himself every year, so why should this year be any difference.

When Milan came back, he found Ezra Butler holding down the outside linebacker position that coaches wanted Milan to play the previous year when Nevada shifted to a 3-4. Butler was so good that Milan was shifted back to defensive end.

For a pass-rusher like Milan, it wasn’t the best of situations. He now had to line up inside the offensive tackle, making sacks tougher to come by in the base defense. He’s outside the tackles in a 4-3 defense.

“I was bummed,” Milan said. “I didn’t want to play like a defensive tackle; inside their tackles.”

It didn’t matter. Milan was still a force. He finished with 36 tackles, including a team-leading 9 1/2 sacks. He also forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles.

“I have a quicker first step,” Milan said. “The whole time I was out I was getting stronger, lifting weights. I’m quicker than I used to be.”

Long agreed.

“I think playing defensive end (in the 3-4) made him a tougher player,” Long said. “Anybody that sees him can’t question his toughness. You can see that he is a tough player. The same thing helped Craig Bailey get a shot in the NFL; get in a training camp.

“Scouts stop by and ask if he’s a stand-up guy (outside linebacker/pass rusher), and our answer is a definitive yes. He’s athletic enough to do that, and has enough savvy and speed to play an up position.”

And, Long thinks that Milan can play up or down in the NFL.

“It depends on what he does with his body,” Long said. “He can be a dominant guy at 280, or he can be a 255-pound outside linebacker. A lot of his future depends on what team wants him.”

Long said that Milan reminds him of Joe Tafoya, a former Arizona defensive lineman whom Long coached when he worked for Dick Tomey.

“He was a four-year player,” Long said. “Joe was a tough player, a physical player. J.J. is like that only he is much more athletic.”

And, Milan will need every bit of that athleticism when he goes up against Miami’s offensive tackles on Sunday.

“Their left tackle has good feet,” Milan said. “He’s tall and big. He’s one of the best I’ve seen. I enjoy the competition. I’m anxious to play.”

And, to have a good game in his collegiate swan song.