This time last year, Jace Amaro would wake up, stare at the ceiling and know he wouldn’t be leaving his bed much that day, if at all.
Forget lifting weights. Practice was a no-no. Even class was too much.
Amaro couldn’t do any of it after suffering a fractured rib, lacerated spleen and internal bleeding after a hit in a 49-14 win over then No. 5 West Virginia a year ago. Amaro couldn’t go to class for three weeks, and was forced to do his homework while undergoing doctor-prescribed bed rest.
“All the times they said I was practicing and stuff and out here, I was at home just watching TV or whatever,” Amaro said. “I really didn’t get my first conditioning in until that week of our bowl game.”
The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the then-sophomore. After a frustrating freshman season, Amaro had logged at least four catches in three of his last four games, and racked up a career-high 156 yards in the win over West Virginia.
This season, Amaro has proved his progress last season was a sign of greatness to come. He’s caught at least eight passes in Texas Tech’s last five games. Two-time Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Michael Crabtree was the last Red Raider to duplicate that feat. Amaro’s 47 catches are 13 more than any player in the Big 12, and he’s one of just three players in the Big 12 averaging at least 100 receiving yards a game.
How he’s doing it hasn’t been complicated.
“I think just being healthy. About this time last year, he was really getting rolling, and then he had that injury,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “So just having a full offseason, a full year of being healthy, you’re really seeing him flourish.”
Amaro knows how frustrating life is when he’s not healthy.
The play called for four vertical routes and quarterback Seth Doege tried to find Amaro deep down the middle of the field. He jumped and reached toward the inside of the field for the pass, exposing his ribs. Mountaineers’ linebacker Terence Garvin read the play well, and delivered a hit to Amaro’s midsection, jarring the ball loose.
“I didn’t think it was much, I just thought I got the wind knocked out of me,” Amaro said.
He walked to the locker room. After a quick examination, trainers cleared him to return to the game. He caught a couple more passes in the second half, but knew something was wrong toward the end of the game when breathing became difficult. That meant a postgame visit to the hospital for an X-ray and a CT scan, which revealed the fractured rib and internal bleeding thanks to a Grade III lacerated spleen. The injury is graded on a 1-5 scale.
The first doctor told Amaro he would only miss two weeks.
“I was pretty pissed about that,” he said.
Then another doctor said four weeks. A third said six weeks. A fourth doctor said Amaro would be better off sitting out the remainder of the season.
The next few weeks made getting back on the field seem impossible.
Late in the game, when he’d move or juke, he’d feel the pain. After the adrenaline was gone, it took a lot less before pain reminded him of his injury. For days after, he couldn’t eat without pain. He could barely talk. Some nights, the pain was too much for him to even sleep.
“It was weird. It felt like a knife was going through my ribs,” he said.
Amaro tore the ACL in his knee as a junior in high school, but this was different. Instead of pain during rehab and after surgery, he felt pain almost all the time for weeks, and rehab wasn’t a possibility. He couldn’t do anything besides lie in his bed and wait for his body to repair itself.
The pain was worsened knowing he’d finally made it past his early career struggles, but couldn’t get back on the field to prove it.
“I didn’t transition very well the first year,” Amaro said. “I was just really frustrated. I’m a very competitive guy, and I remember my freshman year was a hard time for me. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing. I felt like I was good enough to play.”
The San Antonio native was the nation’s No. 5 tight end and a four-star recruit, one of the Red Raiders’ highest signees in the 2011 class.
Amaro weighed himself down with expectations, doubling the frustration of standing on the sidelines.
He didn’t help himself in the offseason after being arrested for credit card fraud along with teammate Kenny Williams in March 2012. The duo bought about $100 in drinks at a bar with a friend’s money, and initially faced felony charges. Those were later dropped.
“It was just a big mixup. It got kind of blown out of proportion,” Amaro said. “It helped me, because I realized how quickly everything can be taken away from you. You don’t want to be in a situation like that ever again. It helped both of us a lot. It made us both more smart in the long run.”
Amaro’s healthy now, and Texas Tech has benefited. The Red Raiders are 6-0 and one of just two remaining undefeated teams in the Big 12. Amaro’s play on the field is no longer based on potential, but real production. His 47 catches are tied for sixth nationally and NFL teams no longer have to stretch their imaginations to wonder what it would be look like for his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame to catch passes in their jersey.
Texas Tech has won its first six games despite turning to two true freshmen at quarterback, one of whom—Baker Mayfield–walked onto the team during the summer.
“He’s definitely a comfort for our quarterbacks,” Kingsbury said. “He’s a big target over the middle, he’s fearless when he goes over there and they know if they get it close to his big body, he’s going to catch the ball, so I know they feel real comfortable throwing to him.”
Amaro rushed back to play in the Red Raiders’ bowl game despite not practicing for three months and being on the practice field for just three days before the game.
“I probably shouldn’t have even played that game. I wasn’t physically ready,” Amaro said. “It was just one of those things where I was so emotionally into it, I just wanted to play so bad, play one more game and that’s just the way I am.”
He caught just two passes for 15 yards and was ejected for throwing a punch that caused him to miss the first half of Tech’s 2013 season opener.
With a full, healthy offseason behind him, Amaro is blossoming into the player Tech hoped he would be. A new coaching staff and a fresh start helped, too.
“Strength and conditioning coaches got us ready well and prepared me well. I’m a little bit more explosive than I was, and I’m in great shape. I’m able to play almost every single play at full speed,” Amaro said. “We’re running different plays almost every single week with different tweaks, and it’s really helpful for me to get open even when it’s double coverage.”
Defenses’ approach to covering Amaro hasn’t mattered. His tall, broad frame and good hands allow him to catch passes over cornerbacks and use his physical style to create space, even if it means the quarterbacks’ delivery needs to be a bit high. His speed warns defensive coordinators that leaving a linebacker covering him may result in a big play down the field. Few 260-pound defenders possess speed equal to what Amaro can boast.
It’s a problem Texas Tech’s defense is glad it never has to face on game day. Kingsbury’s playcalling means so far this season, he’s making sure opposing defenses have to deal with it as often as possible.
“I expect to catch every ball. I knew double teams were going to come and you’re going to have to find a way to get through that,” Amaro said. “I know I’ve caught a lot of balls and catching balls is part of my goal, too, but my ultimate personal goal is to win every single game so we can do something that’s never been done here before.”