T.J. Fatinikun is healthy again after dislocating his elbow last season. He earned third-team All-MAC despite missing six games.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This version corrects the 129 points combined UT yielded to NIU and WMU.
T.J. Fatinikun downplayed the consequences of a tingling feeling in his elbow last football season, convinced the issue warranted no more attention than other garden variety nicks that were bothering him.
It turned out to be a regrettable miscalculation on his part. As he lay in agony on the turf at the Glass Bowl one week later, Fatinikun no longer could fool himself. He never played another snap, depriving his team of its most explosive defensive lineman over the final seven games.
Saying Fatinikun dislocated his elbow, although accurate, falls short of what really happened to him in that win over Eastern Michigan. A string of injuries he believes were precipitated a week earlier, Fatinikun broke a bone, chipped another, and needed to undergo surgery.
"It was way more than a dislocated elbow," the Perrysburg graduate said. "It was pretty intense."
His health restored, Fatinikun is ready to build upon his reputation as a destructive end.
The ultimate compliment came to him after last year when Fatinikun was named third-team All-Mid-American Conference for the second straight season, this despite missing six league contests. His 7.5 tackles for loss in 2011 -- a statistic surely stemmed by his absence -- tied for the team lead, and his 2.5 sacks were most when his season ended.
"You hope he can have a healthy senior year and be there for 12 games because it will be interesting to see what that product looks like after 12 games," UT coach Matt Campbell said.
Fatinikun, who has started the last 19 games in which he has played, is the lone returning starter on a line that will encounter its initial challenge at Arizona on Sept. 1.
The backsliding of the defense in 2011 coincided with Fatinikun's departure. After playing solidly in a win over Bowling Green, the Rockets gave up huge chunks of yards the next three games, allowing yards per play of 6.3, 8.5, and 7.7. Those last two numbers, of course, relate to the 129 points combined UT yielded to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
One can conclude Fatinikun's explosiveness would have made a difference against NIU, when quarterback Chandler Harnish embarrassed UT to the tune of 398 total yards and six touchdown passes. Exchanging a touchdown for a punt could have tipped the scales. NIU prevailed 66-63.
"We knew we lost a really good football player, not only from the standpoint of what his product's been, but also what he brings to the table in every other aspect," Campbell said. "He plays with great energy. He plays with a great deal of emotion. He's one of those guys, I think, who is a rallying point on defense from an emotional standpoint."
Although he had no lingering effects from surgery, Fatinikun was held out in the spring as a precaution. His participation has been unrestricted since the summer.
His injury comes with a silver lining, as the guy who replaced him is more seasoned now than he otherwise would have been. Christian Smith, who started seven games in Fatinikun's stead, will man the other end spot. His consistency has sparked praise from his coaches. Filling the vacancies inside are tackles Elijah Jones and Danny Farr, both of whom recorded career highs in tackles in the Military Bowl.
Expected to be in the rotation are ends Ben Pike and Jayrone Elliott and tackles Phil Lewis and Orion Jones.
"I hope nobody's sleeping on us up front," Fatinikun said. "We've been working hard all summer. We call ourselves the chain gang. That's what we are. Each one of us is going to run off of each other."
MADISON SUSPENDED: Safety Ross Madison will miss the season opener for violating a team policy, Campbell said. Madison, a junior who is second on the depth chart at strong safety, was found guilty Wednesday in Toledo Municipal Court on February charges of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Madison was sentenced to three days in a drivers intervention program and six months of probation.
Also suspended for the game for violating a team policy is senior receiver Sam Gaymon. Gaymon, who was not on the two-deep depth chart released this week, is not currently with the team.
NAVY SERIES: UT and Navy will no longer play in Annapolis in 2015 after both parties canceled the agreement to accommodate the Midshipmen's transition to the Big East, this according to a revised contract obtained by The Blade through a public records request. Unaffected from the original home-and-home agreement is next season's game, still to be played Oct. 19 at UT.
Navy will not be forced to pay a buyout clause of $150,000.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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