After nearly two years, Darius Lipford is healthy and back on the football field. The junior linebacker is back in pads, and he's running and hitting at the bandit position. It ought to be easy to get back to game shape, like riding a bike, right?
Well, no. Not exactly.
"He's been riding a bike for two years, basically, rehabbing," Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora says of Lipford. "It's a little bit easier over there (riding a stationary bike on the sideline) than it is when you're out there (on the field)."
By the time the Tar Heels take the field in Columbia on August 29, it will have been nearly two years since Lipford played in a college football game. In 2011, he'd become a starter at linebacker, recording 42 tackles on the year. Lipford and his teammates met their new head coach in early December. A new coach meant a sense of renewal in the program and new systems meant new opportunities for individual players.
But for Lipford, the road was about to get a lot tougher. On the day after Christmas, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the Independence Bowl. Lipford had surgery, including a graft from his left patella, and an intense rehabilitation period. In July, he was back on the practice field, conditioning ahead of training camp. "We were doing some bag drills, and I had a misstep, and I tore the graft," he said. Lipford didn't know it at first. "My leg seemed to get weaker and weaker throughout the rest of workouts, and I held myself out of the running. That following Monday, the report came back that the ACL was gone again."
Lipford was torn to pieces. He'd worked extremely hard; had been meeting his thresholds ahead of schedule. He was nearly ready to be cleared to return. And just like that, his season was over. His opportunity to impress the head coach was gone. The grueling process would have to begin again. "For that major setback to come right before the season, it just tore me up really bad," he says.
But, he figured, he'd come back from the injury once, and he could do it again. This time, the he was given a ligament from a cadaver, so the surgery wasn't as invasive and his patella didn't require the same time to heal. He watched his teammates push through a season without the promise of a postseason, and he worked hard to get healthy. "I knew I could come back, just like I did the first time, if I worked the same, if not harder," he says. "I pushed myself harder, and now I'm back on the field."
Prior to the 2012 season, every returning player on the Tar Heel roster had to prove himself to a new coaching staff. Lipford wouldn't have the same opportunities in practice or in games. He'd have to rely on rehab reports and his teammates' testimonies. So be it. Like teammate T.J. Thorpe, who missed 2012 with a broken foot, Lipford would be one of those players that Fedora had heard a lot about, but hadn't seen on the field.
In preparation for his return, Lipford took thousands of mental reps and watched film of players like DeMarucs Ware and Jarvis Jones. He studied teammates Shakeel Rashad, Norkeithus Otis and Dion Guy, who were playing bandit in the first year of the 4-2-5 defense installed by coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch. At 6'3 and 245 pounds, Lipford has the right combination of size and speed to be that hybrid between a defensive end and a linebacker. "I tried to get as diverse as I could at the position, because it's really similar to what I played in high school," he says. "It's a spot where I can showcase my athleticism in pass and run."
So far, his teammates seem to agree. "Somebody called this man the DeMarcus Ware reincarnation," safety Tre Boston says of Lipford. "My man is definitely a hard worker. He's a beast. I'm happy to see him on the field, because he's one of those guys that you see in the weight room and you know he's going to give it his all." Boston appears happy to have Lipford up front. "I would definitely say that Darius will make plays for us, and we will win ballgames because of him."
That head coach that had heard a lot about Lipford? He seems to be a believer as well. "He's kind of freakish in what he can do as far as strength and jumping and running," Fedora says. "He's very, very athletic, so we think he fits that hybrid position pretty good, a guy that can come off the edge and go get the quarterback, and also a guy that can drop in and cover a lot for you, too."
No sooner was Lipford back on the field than Rashad suffered a season-ending knee injury. His absence will place an even bigger burden on Lipford and Otis to deliver. And having been through the process that Rashad is about to undergo, Lipford will be there to support his teammate. "It's easy, when you're not playing, for people to not really notice you, and you don't feel as much part of the team, so I'll definitely reach out to him and talk to him every day, tell him to keep his head up, because he's definitely a great athlete."
Meanwhile, Lipford knows the value of focused rehabilitation, because he's out on the practice field after consecutive setbacks. He trusts the process and is feeling as healthy as he's ever been. "A lot of my teammates try to get me to calm down, but this is the strongest and the fastest, the most athletic I've felt," he says. "It's kind of like testing out that new car; you want to go fast."
Come August 29, Lipford will put on a Carolina game jersey for the first time in more than 19 months. As much as any one of his teammates, he'll appreciate the opportunity to run on to that field. "I definitely don't take running, jogging or even walking for granted," he says. "It's just a blessing every day to be able to do the things I can do now."