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Receiver puts pain in past for Utes

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Brian Hernandez is looking forward to running across the famed turf of the Rose Bowl on Sept. 2.

For the first time in his career at Utah, the junior receiver won't be limping. Offseason ankle surgery took care of that.

"It's been a long time," Hernandez said. "It's going to be great."

Despite myriadserious ankle problems, complete with intense pain and a hobbled step, Hernandez caught 39 passes for 709 yards and three touchdowns in 2005. He also made Utah's two longest receptions last season — a 60-yarder against Air Force and a 56-yard haul against Colorado State.

Impressive numbers, especially for someone with a bad wheel. Hernandez, who is Utah's top returning receiver, battled the sore ankle throughout the year. Amazingly, he missed only one game.

"We knew how bad it was when I played. But once you tear it you can't really tear anything more," Hernandez said. "So we kind of realized it was going to hurt but we weren't risking any further damage."

Hernandez, thus, endured the pain until the ankle was surgically repaired on Jan. 5. He played a key role in Utah's season-ending victories over BYU and Georgia Tech — scoring two touchdowns against the Cougars before making eight catches in the Emerald Bowl.

"Early on the adrenaline helped out," Hernandez said. "But at the end of the season it was just real painful no matter what."

Knowing that, Utah receivers coach Aaron Roderick is eager to see what a healthy Hernandez can do.

"I'm anxious to find out," Roderick said. "He was a very good player for us last year and played very well on a severely injured ankle.

"That was a serious injury and somehow he found a way to come and compete every week. He's a tough kid."

The experience has made Hernandez especially appreciative to be free of the ankle pain.

"I can't wait to be able to play a season where I don't have to go through that every game, every week," he said. "I was always in pain not knowing if I was going to play or finish the game. So, it'll be nice."

Hernandez and the Utes have another reason to smile. On July 18, he was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA — making the senior a junior because of past hardships during stints at Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Pima Community College.

"I was really excited," said Hernandez, who received the news while driving to a rehab appointment for his ankle. "We'd been expecting it for a while, but sometimes you never know. So it was really nice to finally get it done and know for sure."

Despite losing his senior status, Hernandez acknowledges he's still one of the veteran leaders in a young, but talented, receiving corps.

"I'm definitely one of the experienced guys," Hernandez said. "I try to help out the young guys as best I can."

Setting the tone by example.

Hernandez led the Utes in yardage gained after a catch last season by averaging 18.2 yards per reception — bad ankle and all.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com