Dan Pettinato got into a three-point stance, put his right hand on the ground, tilted his head up and eyed the double-team awaiting him.
Chris Putton and Fabbians Ebbele, two of the UA’s best offensive linemen, exploded into the Wildcats’ defensive end.
Welcome back, Dan.
Arizona’s defensive end got his first taste of contact last week in practice after tearing his right ACL in January.
Pettinato’s re-introduction to life in the trenches came in a drill the Wildcats call the “hook-up drill.” One defensive lineman goes against two offensive linemen and tries to first shed the double-team and then get to the ball-carrier.
“I was thrown right in there,” Pettinato said. “It felt good. I was just trying not to think about the knee the whole time.”
The Grass Valley, Calif., native made it through just fine. Pettinato, a junior, is expected to play for the first time this season Saturday at Washington.
“Any time you can increase your rotation by one, it’s great. And with Dan, you’re adding a top-of-the-rotation guy,” defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich said. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, he’s good at the point of attack and he does all the little things right — at least he tries to do all the little things right. He’s a guy that just continues to improve.”
Pettinato missed the first two games of last season with a partially torn MCL, then started the Wildcats’ final nine games.
He was a rare bright spot on a thin defensive line. Pettinato finished the season with 35 tackles — 1½ of which went for a loss — and two pass breakups.
Then injuries hit again.
Pettinato tore his ACL during winter conditioning. A subsequent surgery sidelined him for all of spring drills, fall camp and the first three games of this season.
Suffering the second knee injury was “rock bottom, for sure,” Pettinato said.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone though,” he said. “The hardest thing was keeping my head straight and trying to do everything I can to get back.”
Pettinato should help an improving defensive line now that he’s healthy. Kirelawich said there will be no restrictions Saturday on the defensive end.
The Star chatted with Pettinato on his recovery, the keys for stopping Washington and how he feels now.
On finally being cleared for game action: “It’s been a long time coming, but it feels really good. It’s been since the bowl game the last time I played, but the knee feels great. I feel good out there. I’ve worked a lot of the rust off, so I feel good. There are always those nervous feelings before every game, but I’m more excited than anything.”
On how the injury occurred: “Originally, I tweaked my knee and my MCL and had a partial tear in my MCL in camp last year. I was out a few weeks and came back the Oregon game and played the rest of the season. It was winter conditioning when my knee started hurting again, and I went to make a cut, and it was the ACL. My doctor said there was a partial tear on my ACL before it was actually torn. I don’t know if I played with it or tweaked it after, but I always had some pain.”
On if there is still any pain: “I feel good, I feel quicker. It gets sore, but my knee feels really good. The biggest thing right now is getting my confidence back with cutting and stuff. I’m getting that back.”
On stopping Washington quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey: “The biggest thing for us, especially a defensive end, you have to keep them contained. You don’t want to let them get outside because we’re the last hope, and it’s on us. The biggest thing is keeping them contained and pushing them to the linebacker.”
On the toughest part of his recovery: “The whole thing, but really coming out of surgery and learning how to walk again. It just didn’t feel natural to bend your knee and walk, but the first couple of months you really start to progress, and then it really starts slowing down when you’re gaining more muscle and stuff. It was frustrating at the end because you couldn’t really see the results. The next step was always a challenge.”
On his expected return date: “In March, I talked to (Kirelawich) and we made a deal to get back Sept. 28. That was my biggest motivation. I didn’t want to skip one day so I could be back. It’s been a long seven, eight months.”