Palmer returns for the Bears after year-long ACL rehab

Senior defensive end Jamal Palmer jogs onto the field at McLane Stadium before the Bears' game against Rice University on Saturday. Palmer suffered an ACL injury last season and returned to the Bears' lineup in 2015. Photo credit: Sarah Pyo

Just five games into the 2014 season, defensive end Jamal Palmer tore his ACL, ruling him out for the rest of the season. Sicne then, Palmer has fought through pain and doubt, eventually leading to his return to the Bears’ defensive lineup for the 2015 season.

Reflecting back on the situation, Palmer said his first thought after hearing the bad news was that he would be powerless to help his team.

The loss hurt the Bears in the 2014 season, as they were unable to muster the same pass rush they had before Palmer’s injury. Without Palmer, the Bears’ defensive line was missing a key piece to its game plan.

“I was so worried about not helping my team win,” Palmer said. “I knew it was an ACL injury and I knew that I had to get surgery, but at the same time, I was worried that I couldn’t help my team anymore. That was the first thing that came into my mind.”

Palmer said the prospect of surgery and rehab was disappointing. He went through months of rehab and extensive workouts in an attempt to get back to full strength.

“When the surgery came around, it brought me down because the pain was going to be there and it was going to be starting all over again with walking. It was tough for me,” Palmer said.

Though the pain was intense. here was one thing that kept the 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior determined to get back on the football field.

“[My] motivation was winning a national championship before I left school and helping my team [get there],” Palmer said. “I wanted to show people that I can come back and be the same player that I was [before the injury].”

The McKinney native registered 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks in his five-game season last year. Judging by the numbers.

.The defensive end has already accumulated 13 tackles and two sacks through three games this season.

People can be skeptical about players coming off knee injuries, but Palmer fully believes that he will be able to elevate his play each week, he said.

“People have doubts about the ACL injury and what you can do after you come back from surgery… and I still have a ways to go,” Palmer said. “I still do a little rehab, but my knee’s getting back strong and I’m improving every game. That’s what I want to do, so if I can improve every game, I think it’ll help this team [win].”

Palmer said having an iconic pass rusher like All-American Shawn Oakman on the other end makes things a little easier on the defensive line. The senior defensive end went on to say that one of the keys to Baylor’s success is putting pressure on the quarterback.

“Having [Oakman] will make [defenses] focus on him a lot more and that’s what we want them to do,” Palmer said. “If they focus on Oakman, it’ll give me the chance to rush off the edge and have the one-on-one battle. Having Oakman back is a big deal for me, because he can control the edge. If I get that one-on-one, I want to win that [matchup].”

Palmer has proven that he is capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield when only facing one man and admitted that he takes it as an insult when teams allow him to go one-on-one.

“I want to beat [Oakman] off the edge because I want to show him that I’m back there too and I’m going to beat [him] to the punch,” Palmer said. “That’s good for our defense; getting back there to the quarterback… me and Oakman competing to get sacks is going to help the whole team out.”

The prospect of a defensive line competing for sacks may seem a bit odd, but Palmer was quick to point out that the competition raises everyone’s level of play.

“It’s a friendly competition, but to have the whole D-line with Beau Blackshear, Andrew Billings and Bryon Bonds out there competing, I think it helps our defense,” Palmer said.

The race to reach the quarterback may prove tougher this Saturday as Baylor takes on Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have only surrendered one sack through four games this season.

Palmer said he believes the Bears’ defense will have greater success getting to the quarterback this year, thanks to the deeper core of defensive linemen. Last year, Baylor played Texas Tech late in the season and was limited with personnel, due to injuries.

“Now that we’re playing Tech earlier in the season, we’re all healthy,” Palmer said. “we’ve got some guys that can go out there and rotate. It’ll give us a chance to catch our breath and when we get back out there, we can stop [Tech].”

With the deeper rotation on the defensive line, Palmer said the defense is looking to make this a statement game. Palmer added that the disruption of the Red Raiders’ offense starts with Baylor’s defensive line.

“We have a chance to show people that we are a good defense and we are a better defense than we were [last year],” Palmer said. “We want to get a pass rush on them, because if we get a pass rush, it’ll be easier for our [defensive backs].”

The lack of a pass rush in the game against Texas Tech last year allowed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to throw for 598 yards against the Bears. The shaky defense nearly let the Red Raiders steal the game late, but Baylor was able to hold on for a 48-46 victory.

Palmer said it was hard to watch the game unfold on the sidelines, being helpless with an injury.

He said the experience has made the team focus on closing out games better and making sure they don’t repeat last year’s performance.

“It made us hungry to play. We don’t want that to happen,” Palmer said. “When we have a lead, we have to be able to finish games. That’s a big chip on our shoulders this year. We want to finish well as a team and that’s what we’re taking pride in this year.”

The Baylor defensive line will look to make a statement when they take on Texas Tech at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.