The surgery was over and Trey Lomax didn’t even have to get on his feet to know it had been successful.
The San Diego State senior safety started all but one of the Aztecs’ 12 games in 2016 and played with a nagging pain in his groin. It was thought to be a sports hernia, but as Lomax prepared for surgery in January, the doctors discovered that an impinged nerve near his hip was causing the discomfort.
When the surgeons’ work was done, it was like a dentist pulled an aching tooth.
“You never know how much pain he was in,” Phil Lomax, Trey’s dad, said. “But when somebody comes right out of surgery, and they feel better in that moment than he did at any time last year, you know it must have been pretty bad.”
That result was tremendously important for Lomax and SDSU football. It meant that the Mira Mesa High product would be able to play at full strength, which is critical considering how young the Aztecs are at the other two safety spots in their 3-3-5 defense.
“This is the best I’ve felt since my redshirt freshman season,” Trey Lomax said.
On Saturday night in their season opener at home against UC Davis, SDSU will start junior Parker Baldwin at the Aztec (or free safety) spot, with Lomax and true freshman Tariq Thompson flanking him at the Warrior (strong safety) positions. Lomax’s backup is another true freshman, Darren Hall.
On the outside will be first-time cornerback starters Kameron Kelly, a senior who traded Warrior reps last season with Lomax, and sophomore Ron Smith.
The situation harkens back to 2014, when three young safeties – Malik Smith, Na’im McGee and Lomax – were thrown into the fire.
“That was unbelievable,” said Aztecs defensive coordinator and safeties coach Danny Gonzales. “Malik was the only one who had played in a game, and for the North Carolina game I was scared to death. It was as nerve-wracking as anything in my 18 years.”
Against North Carolina’s spread offense, the Aztecs youngsters played strikingly well in the game SDSU lost in the closing seconds when quarterback Quinn Kaehler threw an interception at the goal line.
“Trey played phenomenal in that game,” Gonzales said of a performance in which Lomax had a game-high 10 tackles.
The following week, Lomax made 11 tackles against Oregon State, and he would go on to record 63 tackles for the season – the most by an Aztecs freshman in seven years.
Unfortunately, the following season was quickly marred by a knee injury Lomax suffered in the opener against USD. He missed the next six games, didn’t get another start, and didn’t play in either the Mountain West title game or Hawaii Bowl.
“I could tell watching, and I’m sure Rocky (Long) and his staff could, that he wasn’t at full strength or full speed,” Phil Lomax said.
Seemingly mended for 2016, Lomax returned and started every game but the MW Championship at Wyoming. But he also wasn’t truly himself because of the groin pain, and Kelly often subbed in for him on passing plays.
“For the most part, it was tight all of the time,” Lomax said. “Some days were worse than others. But it never got to the point where I couldn’t play. I had to push through it.”
Any loss of quickness was an issue, because he’s never had burning speed. Gonzales said Lomax has one of the best and most instinctive football minds of any player he’s coached, and he was able to compensate for other weaknesses with sharp anticipation and good tackling angles.
“As a kid I always played linebacker, so even now I’m more comfortable being in the box, rather than being in the slot and covering a guy 1-on-1,” Lomax said.
When Lomax was badly beaten a couple of times early last season, Gonzales said his confidence was shaken.
“He started playing soft, and then the catches come easier, and then the plays are bigger,” Gonzales said. “That was the biggest challenge last year.”
The ascension of Kelly to a larger role might have sent some players pouting to the bench, but Lomax didn’t react sourly about it. Gonzales recalled needing to play Kelly in the entire Las Vegas Bowl win because of Houston’s up-tempo offense.
The coach felt badly about that because of all the work Lomax put in. He approached the player on the sideline with an apologetic shrug.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m good,’ and Trey was on the sideline coaching (Kelly) up,” Gonzales said. “There are selfish guys and team guys, and Trey is a team guy.”
Lomax was taught such things by his dad, who was his coach through high school.
“Kam Kelly is headed to the NFL, for sure,” Phil Lomax said. “And I like the way Trey has mentored him, and the way they’ve developed together.”
It wasn’t always easy for Phil Lomax to hear others speculate on why his son wasn’t getting more playing time.
“Certainly, people around us have their opinions about that,” the father said. “He’s a football player and he understands how things work. I’m a football coach, and I understand how things work.
“Nobody is going to compromise their ability to win to make Trey Lomax happy. He goes about his business in that way, and he’s an important part of that. I’m proud of the way he’s handled himself.”
With his health intact, Trey Lomax said he believes he can have the kind of impact he had in his first season.
“I’m excited for this season,” Lomax said. “I took it on myself in this offseason to get faster, to work on my man-to-man. I’ve shown that improvement on the field, and as long as I can go out and prove it, I think I’ll be on the field more.”
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