The wait for Derrick Locke's return to the Kentucky lineup looks as if it's finally over.
Locke, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound senior tailback who was having an All-SEC-caliber season before suffering a shoulder injury against Auburn on Oct. 9, said after Wednesday's practice that he'll play in the Cats' home finale against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Locke has made it through two days of full-contact practices, but Coach Joker Phillips stopped short of saying Locke would definitely play.
"From the looks of it today, yeah," he said. "He's feeling better. We won't know until game day, but I feel a lot better about him playing this week."
Locke's injury was originally described as a stinger, and he was expected to miss only a game or two. But the condition was mysteriously slow to heal, and each week Locke was listed as day-to-day. Locke was cleared by doctors two weeks ago, but Phillips said repeatedly that it was Locke's decision when he returned.
"Two weeks into it, I still couldn't move my arm," said Locke, who spoke to reporters for the first time since the injury on Wednesday. "I couldn't just raise my arm. I could only move my arm about 45 degrees. My nerves just basically kind of shut down, and I really couldn't function with it. Now I'm getting my strength back, and I can move it and hit with it."
Phillips said he could tell that sitting out was taking its toll on Locke, who had considered skipping his senior season and entering the NFL Draft.
"It's been tough on him, because he's such a competitor and has so much confidence in his ability," Phillips said. "There's been times he went into this thing getting up on Saturday thinking, 'I'm going to play.' But as the day goes on, he would decide that he was going to hurt the team or hurt himself. It's been tough on him mentally."
Locke said the uncertainty definitely made it difficult.
"It was rough because I didn't know when (full range of motion and feeling) was going to come back. There was talk that it might never come back, or it might come back in months. Three weeks into it, I wasn't really getting any improvement in it at all. Now it's like, 'OK, now I'm good. I can do this, I can do that, I can run finally. Now I can finally put on some pads and play."
When asked whether he was scared during the ordeal, Locke said, "I won't say I was scared, but I worried. I've got a family, and this is my life, and this is what I want to do. If I can't play, what am I gonna do? I'll have my degree, but that's not the route we want to go, just to be honest."
Still, Locke said he had no regrets about his decision to return to UK.
"I felt like coming back was the best thing for me," Locke said. "I needed to get a lot smoother, I needed to get better on some things, and I feel like I did that early in the season."
Locke's return should boost a UK running game that has struggled at times in his absence. Backups Raymond Sanders, Donald Russell and CoShik Williams have all had their moments as fill-ins, but none of them has Locke's explosiveness on the perimeter or through holes. Locke said it was hard to watch games.
"That hurt," Locke said. "When I watched our running backs, I would say, 'Man, I wish I could have had that play.' "
Phillips said Locke's return gives the offense much more versatility.
"Speed, the ability to make plays in space," Phillips said. "That's one of the things we've got to do this week, be able to make plays out on the perimeter. He gives that to us. You can throw it to him out in space also, and line him up in some empty (backfield) sets that put him at the wide receiver position. He gives us a lot of multiple formations we can get in with our offense."
At the time of his injury, Locke had rushed for 574 yards and was second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (95.7). It's unlikely that Locke will reach his preseason goal of 1,000 rushing yards, but he still wants to go out with a bang.
"I've got to finish how I started," Locke said. "That's the main objective right now; finish how I started."