While it hurt -- a lot -- Utah defensive end Kylie Fitts didn't think too much about his foot when it got stepped on and twisted in the early going against BYU in Week 2 last season. It was a rivalry game, so there was no time for pain, no matter how it might throb.
In the locker room at halftime, he did ask for a bit of extra tape, though. That inspired a precautionary X-ray. And the resulting image would crush Fitts. There were torn ligaments, and the ultimate diagnosis was the dreaded, season-ending Lifranc injury.
“It was one of the hardest times of my life," said Fitts, who already was dealing with the recent death of a grandfather. "It was really a low point of my life. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could get a year back. I was devastated.”
Fitts is among the best players in the nation whom few know anything about. Well, some know about his circuitous route to Utah, passing through a bitter decommitment to USC and an unhappy year at UCLA. After his transfer to Utah, he sat out a season, per transfer rules, and turned in a promising 2015 campaign. He appeared ready for a breakout in 2016 when he recorded three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks in a season-opening win over Southern Utah.
It wasn't to be, and Fitts, as a senior in terms of eligibility, felt the pang of uncertainty about his future. It took a few weeks, a visit from his family and reassuring words from Utah's compliance department to turn his frown upside down. While he has yet to receive official word from the NCAA on his medical waiver, he checks all the boxes and most around the program rate it a near certainty he'll be a starting defensive end and potential All-Pac-12 player in 2017.
“Compliance told me it’s pretty much a 100 percent chance I get my year back," said Fitts, noting he should know officially before the school year ends.
Fitts is going to take it easy this spring, resting his foot, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Young ends like Bradlee Anae, Chris Hart and Caleb Repp need the practice time to show their stuff and learn the defense. With defensive tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi returning, the Utes look poised to again have one of the best D-lines in the conference. With a healthy Fitts, that is.
Fitts started last season at right end in the Utes' 4-3 opposite Hunter Dimick, who led the nation with 14.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder said he feels comfortable on either side, but one of the questions for 2017 is whether he becomes another dominant pass-rusher -- like Dimick, Nate Orchard or Trevor Reilly -- or if the Utes become more of a committee of pass-rushers.
Another big question is whether Utah solves its November woes. While the Utes have been in the thick of the South Division race the past three seasons while winning 28 games -- they are the last team to beat USC, by the way, 31-27 on Sept. 23 -- they are 5-7 in November during that span. That's why Fitts said the feeling in the locker room at the end of the 2016 campaign was not one of satisfaction over a solid season.
“Definitely, it's unfinished business," he said. "In November, we started dropping off a little bit. I think that is really motivating us heading into this season. That’s something we want to change this season.”
Fitts has his own business he wants to finish. After a somewhat tumultuous Pac-12 experience -- three teams, sitting out, a major injury -- he's ready to leave behind the crew of best players in the nation whom few know anything about.