NEW ORLEANS -- At first, trainers told LSU offensive guard Josh Dworaczyk that he might have only damaged his medial collateral ligament. Dworaczyk knew better. He had felt the telltale pop when a defensive end rolled into his knee during an inside run drill in preseason camp in August. "Something's wrong," the three-year starter said. "Something's off."
An MRI confirmed a torn anterior cruciate ligament, ending Dworaczyk's season before it began. Dworaczyk remained composed when he received visits from position coach Greg Studrawa and LSU head coach Les Miles. He couldn't maintain the façade for long, though. "I couldn't keep it in," Dworaczyk said. "I broke down."
Dworaczyk didn't stay long at his pity party, though. Instead, he found a new role that turned out to be one of the most important in the program. He essentially became major college football's youngest assistant coach.
Even before quarterback Jordan Jefferson's late August arrest in connection with a bar fight, the LSU offense was in a fragile state. Offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, who had spent the previous year helping his wife deal with Multiple Sclerosis, had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Kragthorpe's treatment plan required him to take a less exhausting role, so he and Miles decided Kragthorpe would coach only quarterbacks while Studrawa, the offensive line coach, would become the offensive coordinator.
Studrawa knew he would need to call plays from the press box so he could see the entire field, but the idea scared him. An ex-offensive lineman himself, the man they call Coach Stud knew his linemen needed to see a familiar face when they came off the field after each series. In function and personality, linemen resemble guard dogs. They are unfailingly loyal to the few they trust and either indifferent or openly hostile to everyone else. Studrawa worried LSU's other offensive assistants, who also have position groups of their own to coach, wouldn't have the time to earn the trust of his linemen. "We needed a down-on-the-field guy who could translate the communications between the box and the line of scrimmage," Miles said. But the NCAA only allows nine assistants and two graduate assistants to work with players on the field, so the Tigers couldn't simply post a job opening and hire someone new. They would have to figure out a more creative way to communicate.
When Dworaczyk went down, Studrawa was beside himself. Compounding the pressure of a huge, unexpected promotion, he had just lost the best player in his position group. "He was the leader," Studrawa said. "The most experienced. The most decorated. The guy who had played the most snaps." Then Studrawa and Miles had an idea to help Studrawa and give Dworaczyk a way to contribute while he rehabilitated his knee. Why not issue Dworaczyk a headset and allow the fifth-year senior from New Iberia, La., to be Studrawa's eyes, ears and mouth on the sideline? After all, the NCAA has no rule against a player coaching his teammates. "With me going up there, who do they look to? There's nobody," Studrawa said. "Well, now they've got a guy they played next to in the trenches. ... There's a smiling face. There's a comforting face. There's a guy who they know, love and trust."
As an added bonus, Dworaczyk happens to speak Coach Stud. Studrawa, like most good offensive line coaches, is a huge, bubbling geyser of emotion. Laughter and yelling pour forth in equal parts -- with equal intensity. "[Dworaczyk] is able to communicate up to Stud and down to us," LSU center P.J. Lonergan said. "He's a good intermediary between us. Stud is so emotional. You'll put the headphones on, and he's just screaming at you." How does that sound? "He's got this deep, bellowing voice," Miles said. "Mine, you have to fight like hell to hear it. With him, it's AAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHH!"
With Dworaczyk on the sideline, Studrawa has had little trouble relaying critical adjustments between series. Because he was in the players' cleats as recently as last season, Dworaczyk also serves as an in-game therapist. "It's the times when you mess up a play," Dworaczyk said. "It's the times when you wish you'd made a block." Those moments, Dworaczyk believes, are when a lineman needs face-to-face contact with someone who understands. Dworaczyk has learned this season to offer the positive reinforcement his teammates need to get in the proper frame of mind for the next series.
Dworaczyk also has enjoyed slipping behind the wire rope and into the fascinating world of in-game headset chatter between coaches. The mix of strategy, gallows humor and complete freakouts has changed Dworaczyk's perspective on the game. "You get to see what they go through," Dworaczyk said. "I never, ever imagined the kind of things they have to do during the game. Now that I know, I'm going to be playing next year and I'll look at the guys with the headsets on and wonder what they're talking about."
Dworaczyk is confident the NCAA will grant him an extra year of eligibility, so he expects to be back between the sidelines for the Tigers next season. In the offseason, Miles will have time to adjust his coaching staff to account for having Studrawa in the press box. But LSU coaches had to adjust on the fly in 2011. Luckily, Dworaczyk embraced a role he never intended to play. "That, to me, is as critical a change this season as anything that happened for this program," Studrawa said. "Having that guy down there making those changes made everything else go smooth."
Studrawa said Kragthorpe and Dworaczyk taught him a valuable lesson this season -- a lesson Coach Stud plans to relay to future players and to his own daughters. "When things strike you bad," Studrawa said, "find something positive." Dworaczyk, meanwhile, can't help but marvel at how a season-ending injury made him one of the most important players on a 13-0 team.
"It's crazy to think about," Dworaczyk said. "But it's almost like it was meant to be."