Updated: August 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Devin Rushing returned from exile this week fully aware that he had at least temporarily lost his starting spot.
His new number though? Come on.
"They took my jersey," said Rushing, the junior Air Force tailback who had switched from No. 31 to 3 early in August. "I talked to the equipment manager and he said my jersey is still in there with Rushing written on the back, but I've got to earn it back."
Rushing missed 10 days after suffering a Grade 2 ankle sprain while running in the physical Oklahoma drill on the team's second day in full pads. He said his facemask was grabbed by a defensive teammate, causing his head to turn. Unable to look down, he ran into a defender on the ground who grabbed his leg and did a "gator roll."
"Even though I had an ankle brace on it, it still snapped," Rushing said. "The way it looked and with the way it was swollen, I thought it was broken. But I put my faith in the trainers and they got me back."
He's back, but it remains to seen what spending 10 days away will do to Rushing's chances of playing. The concern isn't so much the lingering impact of the injury - though that will be important if it limits the quickness of a shifty runner who has compared himself to Barry Sanders - but rather the stigma he'll carry with a coaching staff that detests injuries.
"I think at every position we're going to have tough, durable guys," coach Troy Calhoun said. "If you aren't, you're going to get us beat. I think the other thing is you have a built-in alibi if you're a guy who gets hurt easily. If you're a guy who gets hurt easily, you need to find another activity where there's not contact involved."
When a player under Calhoun is injured he wears a red jersey and does not participate in practice. In fact, he's not generally in the same vicinity as the team practices as injured players often rehab in separate facilities. During a scrimmage at Falcon Stadium on Friday, those in red sat in the stands instead of standing close enough to hear instructions from coaches.
Any coach would want to weed out guys who search for aches to prevent them from working with the team, but there might be value in allowing a key player who suffers a legitimate injury to continue to learn from watching teammates up close and gaining instruction. But that's not how it's done at the academy.
"They go to meetings," Calhoun said. "I just think you either add to the chemistry or take from the chemistry. There's no in between. If you're a red jersey, I just don't want anybody sucking the life out of everybody else who is working. Who is able to go out there even if they have an itch somewhere?"
Asked if he saw anything wrong with this policy, essentially excommunicating an injured player from the program until he heals, Calhoun offered only this: "I think a warrior wants to be in battle, and we want warriors."
Running backs coach Ben Miller said staying healthy is critical for Rushing if he is to prove he can be a featured tailback.
"I hope he's got it in his mind that this is the last time he misses any practice this year," Miller said. "You do, at that spot, have to be an every-down guy, and especially here where you're going to get the rock a bunch. They know that. He did everything he needed to do to get back. Unless something freaky happens again, he'll be durable."
Rushing, who played cornerback as a freshman and ran for 171 yards on 41 carries last season, has been a part of the program long enough to where none of this came as a surprise. He has accepted that Jacobi Owens is the starter.
"Jacobi's running with the 1s, I'm with the 2s," Rushing said. "I can't hate the coaches for it. I've been gone; he's been scrimmaging. Props to him.
"That's what they do. I feel like it's all a process to make you want to get back faster and get back on the field and get back everything I had. I want it all back. That's just how it is."