Barely a year after sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury, UNLV linebacker Starr Fuimaono found himself badly hurt again.

He went down with a major knee injury last year at Utah in the second game. Fuimaono’s season was over as quickly as it had begun.

While his Rebels teammates prepared for games, Fuimaono went through surgery, then the pain of a nine-month rehabilitation process that also would cost him spring practice.

It’s a lot for any athlete to endure, and it would be tempting for an all-out player such as Fuimaono to shy away from being so aggressive on the field. But he won’t. He can’t.

“That’s something I’m always going to maintain, no matter how many injuries I get,” the junior from Chula Vista, Calif., said. “That’s the type of football player I am — physical — so I want to keep it that way.”

UNLV’s coaches are being careful about how they handle Fuimaono, even though he is cleared to practice.

“Starr’s one of the toughest kids I’ve known. It’s up to us keeping an eye on him and understanding we’re going to really keep him protected,” linebackers coach Jed Stugart said. “But right now he doesn’t look like he’s limited at all. Now it’s our job to make sure we don’t push him too hard.”

On the early depth chart, Fuimaono (6 feet, 210 pounds) is listed even with sophomore Beau Orth, a Bishop Gorman High School graduate, at strong-side linebacker.

If Fuimaono starts the Sept. 5 opener against Sacramento State at Sam Boyd Stadium, he’s going to have to earn the position.

Because much of the defensive game plan was funneled through Fuimaono the past two seasons, his injuries had an immediate and noticeable adverse effect.

In October 2007, UNLV’s defense was dominating Wyoming, leading 17-9 midway through the third quarter. But then Fuimaono dislocated his right shoulder, and the Cowboys’ offense awakened to score three touchdowns and win 29-24.

In September, UNLV led Utah 14-7 when Fuimaono tore the anterior cruciate ligament and sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The Utes went on to win 42-21.

If Fuimaono gets hurt this season, the Rebels hope to be better able to weather the hit with better depth and by moving defenders to different spots to try to create matchup advantages.

Not that anyone anticipates another injury to Fuimaono.

“I think they (were) both freak injuries,” coach Mike Sanford said. “I don’t think there was anything inherent, other than I think he plays really hard. He plays recklessly.”

Fuimaono’s recovery from the mid-October surgery wasn’t easy. He did three weeks of flexibility work before beginning full rehab that included strengthening his hamstring, part of which was used to replace the ACL.

“When I started rehab, it was the worst feeling,” he said. “It felt like it was never going to be the same. Rehab really helped. I’m actually stronger in my left leg now than my right leg.”

• NOTE — UNLV added a walk-on punter, junior Daniel Ayers (6-2, 193) from Laney College in Oakland, Calif. He is competing with junior Brendon Lamers and senior Kyle Watson.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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