For Ryan Buchholz, the pain was worse than those outside the team knew. On Wednesday, the Penn State defensive end revealed that it would cost him his career.
A long battle with back problems has ultimately forced Buchholz, a projected starter in a deep group of pass rushers, to walk away from football.
“Stemming from problems developed in high school, I’ve been through years of dealing with extreme pain,” Buchholz wrote on Twitter. “After multiple back surgeries and the inability to perform 100% at this level, it is time for me to retire.
“You only have one body, and my health and future well-being is most important to me. Unfortunately, some things don’t last forever, and I am just very thankful for everyone who has helped and supported me throughout my career.”
Hurting at pass rusher: The news leaves the Nittany Lions without two of its three most experienced pass rushers. Buchholz won’t suit up again and a serious knee injury suffered last fall may keep fifth-year senior Torrence Brown from playing as well.
“I do not expect Torrence to be ready for the season,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said at the start of training camp. As far back as winter workouts, teammates spoke of Brown as though he wouldn’t be able to return to the field for his final year.
Last season, the Lions managed to trudge on when Brown went down in the third game of the season against Georgia State. Buchholz made his first career start in Brown’s place and proved to be solid along with classmate Shareef Miller, who donned Brown’s No. 19 jersey for the following week’s Big Ten opener at Iowa, recording a safety.
But when Buchholz went down as well midway through the showdown with Ohio State — Penn State was undefeated, ranked No. 2 in the country and leading the Buckeyes at the time — the attrition showed.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett went nearly untouched in the fourth quarter, enabling him to lead a huge rally to beat the Lions by a point. A game later vs. Michigan State, Penn State again had trouble getting home against the slippery Brian Lewerke, who led the Spartans to a last-second field goal that dumped the Lions out of the national title picture.
Buchholz didn’t return until the end of the regular season, playing sparingly against Maryland and then in the Fiesta Bowl against Washington.
Possbile replacements: This season, Penn State should be in a better position to replace their veteran ends as competition for the starting spot opposite Miller should be tight.
“This is the deepest group of ends I’ve coached since I’ve been in the power five here and in the SEC (at Vanderbilt),” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said at the start of camp. “This is my deepest group of ends I can put on the field, yes.
“The unity of all those guys. How close they are with each other and how the older guys work with the younger guys. If I give them a question in the meeting — a young guy, and he doesn’t answer it — you can see the older guy whispering to him, writing him a note saying, ‘This is what Coach is saying to you.’ They work with each other after practice, staying and hitting the sled. That’s pretty impressive.”
The top candidates for Buchholz’s spot would be redshirt sophomore Shane Simmons and true sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos, both of whom were among the highest-rated recruits in their respective classes. The Lions also have redshirt sophomore Shaka Toney, who established himself as a pass-rush specialist with four sacks in limited reps. Daniel Joseph, like Simmons and Gross-Matos, is a former four-star prospect who also could enter the rotation.
And with the new redshirt rules allowing players to appear in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, the Lions will also be able to take a longer look at four-star new arrivals Jayson Oweh and Nick Tarburton.
All will likely see the field for Spencer and Pry, who prefer to have a steady rotation up front during games.
When the Lions were hurting at the position last year, they had tackle Kevin Givens shifting over to play on the outside as another option in a pinch — though Givens is needed much more at tackle now after the graduation of three seniors from a year ago.
“We love that flexibility. I think it was one of the keys to our success last season,” Pry said. “Tight ends, it’s a handful when they try and block Kevin.
“Against some of those teams that put some bigger folks out there, I think it’s something that we’d like to do, continue to do. It’s going to depend on the development of the rest of those guys at defensive tackle, that’s where that will be.”
Losing flexibility: Penn State will also lose some of that flexibility with Buchholz out. The Malvern native and Great Valley grad had the ability to shift inside for obvious passing situations and allow the Lions to get guys like Toney on the field for third-and-long. That was shaping up to be important again in 2018 with the depth at tackle as one of the team’s biggest question marks.
In all, Buchholz played 23 games for Penn State, recording 34 tackles (seven for loss) and five sacks.
As much as the team will miss him, the situation hits Buchholz even harder.
“For the past 13 years, football has been all I’ve known and done,” Buchholz wrote. “I will forever be grateful for the opportunities, memories and friends this sport has given me. … Lastly, I would like to thank coach (James) Franklin and the rest of the staff for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime to play at an amazing university like Penn State.”