Brandon Thurmond hasn't quite cleared the big hurdle yet. But the fact that he's even at the starting gate is pretty significant.
Thurmond was emerging as one of the big stories of Kentucky's 2007 spring practice. Outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard had missed some time because of family concerns and a bad hamstring, and Thurmond stepped in and took full advantage, impressing the coaches with his speed and ability to fly to the ball.
He shot through a gap to make a tackle when his knee buckled, resulting in a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
That was more than two years ago. And Thurmond has yet to play in a game for UK.
After redshirting as a true freshman in 2006, the Georgia native missed the entire 2007 season after the initial knee injury. He reinjured the knee and missed last year's spring practice, and was forced to sit out 2008 after hurting it again last summer.
Four years on campus, three knee surgeries, zero games. Thurmond is hoping that his breakthrough finally comes in 2009. He was limited to non-contact drills this spring and made it through without any major setbacks. Now he's taking part in full contact for the first time since his first injury.
"So far, so good," Thurmond said. "I really know the schemes already; it's just learning how to move again with my knee. I have to learn how to be a playmaker again. It's not difficult, but it is a learning curve. I just have to re-teach my body to react to contact and to what I'm seeing."
UK Coach Rich Brooks gives Thurmond kudos for his perseverance.
"He's had a tough road," Brooks said. "It's good just to see him back out here again. It would be a great story if he can make it back. We've just got to see how he holds up through the contact of fall camp."
Thurmond said that the mental hurdle is more difficult than the physical one.
"There's obviously not a day that goes by that (the injury) doesn't cross my mind," he said. "You wonder, 'What if it happens again?' But I have confidence in my abilities. If it's in God's plan, then everything will turn out all right, but I try not to think about it too much."
While Thurmond has gone under the knife three times, it was the first injury that was the toughest to take.
"I got hurt making plays," he said. "I had high expectations and was just starting to make a name for myself and understand the schemes. I was getting accolades from everybody, and then it came out of nowhere.
"First day it happened, I cried. I'm not going to lie."
Thurmond has the characteristics of someone who could thrive without football: He's personable and a two-year member of the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll.
There were times when he thought about hanging it up.
"I was like, 'I can give this up and just go on and live a normal life, and not think anything of it,'" Thurmond said. "But I wanted to push myself just to see, because if I didn't do that I would always wonder, what if?"
First, Thurmond will have to prove that the knee is sound and healthy. Then he'll have to climb the depth chart, since UK brought in several linebackers during his period of inactivity.
"I have to seize my moments," Thurmond said. "I might only get a few plays in the scrimmages, so I have to make them count." Thurmond's roommate, Ricky Lumpkin, has battled injuries himself and was often there for Thurmond to lean on.
"I've seen him down," Lumpkin said. "But while most guys would have given up, he's still out there. I tell him that all the time. I really, really want to see him out on the field this year. He's worked hard, he's paid his dues, and he's had three surgeries. He deserves it."
Hit and miss
■ UK completed the first of a pair of two-a-day practice sessions scheduled for fall camp on Thursday.
Brooks said he was pleased with the first practice but disappointed with the second, when he allowed the players to go in helmets and shorts.
UK will have its first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday.
■ Senior running back Alfonso Smith (foot) returned to practice Thursday, while sophomore receiver Randall Cobb (hip flexor) and cornerback Randall Burden (hamstring) sat out.
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