Finally healthy, Gophers linebacker Brendan Beal is 'having fun again'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The old Brendan Beal is back.
At least that's what fellow Gophers linebacker and close friend Mike Rallis thinks when he sees Beal, the 22-year-old redshirt junior who is healthy again after two major knee injuries and trying to earn a spot in the defensive rotation.
"It's just great to see him back out here, having fun again," Rallis said on Tuesday, following the Gophers' fourth practice of fall camp.
"A lot of guys have faced injuries and adversity. Not nearly as many have faced what he has on the injury front. For him to battle through that every time and keep fighting through, I'm just really excited to see it pay off on game day."
Two days were all that separated Beal from finally playing in his first collegiate game. Three seasons of biding his time on the sidelines, waiting for clearance to play were almost in the past.
It took one false move to add another devastating wrinkle to his story.
Beal tore his right anterior cruciate ligament -- the same one that had been surgically repaired three years earlier -- in practice on Sept. 1, less than 48 hours prior to last season's opener against USC.
Was that it? Was it time to let go? Would he only be opening himself up to long-term injury if he attempted to come back for a second time?
The thoughts coursed through Beal's mind in succession.
"It always does any time you get hurt like that, especially in my case," Beal said, when asked if the idea of leaving football behind came up.
Three years at the college level and he had yet to log a down.
Once a four- and five-star rated linebacker from Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., Beal never played at the University of Florida. The ACL he tore in August 2008 kept him off the field for two years.
In May 2010, realizing his chances of working back into a valued role with the Gators were narrow, Beal decided to accept former Gophers coach Tim Brewster's transfer offer.
After a season lost due to NCAA transfer rules, Beal was a near lock to be factor on defense in the Gophers' first year under coach Jerry Kill. But when his knee gave out for the second time, Beal had to assess the repercussions of another comeback.
Contemplations of stepping away were short-lived.
"I think it lasted for about five minutes," Rallis said. "He had a great attitude about it. Obviously, he was devastated for a little bit, but he bounced back and was lifting the next day."
In the days following the injury and the subsequent surgery, Beal could be seen around the team's practice facility, head down and a large brace over his knee, rightfully dejected from the thought of having to spend another year in the background. It didn't prevent him from starting his rehab as soon as he was given the go-ahead.
"I can remember even the day it happened. He said 'Hey, I'll be back," linebackers coach and assistant head coach Bill Miller said. "I don't think he understands that giving up and quitting part."
Beal originally targeted a possible return that season, but when it became obvious the knee would need longer to heal, the Gophers resolved they would ease him back slowly. Even though Beal had been through the process before, strength and conditioning Eric Klein and his staff worked with him to ensure he didn't do too much too quickly.
Long-term injuries have the tendency to take a player away from the team as they go through rehab, but Beal stayed nearby all season and into the spring practice, doing many of his workouts on the sideline as his teammates practiced.
"A lot of it is keeping them in contact with what's going on, being in with the guys, seeing what everyone else is doing," Klein said. "Yeah, you may not be partaking right now, but you're still part of the process and if you work you can get back there. You worked to get to a point. Yeah, you took a step back, but we have to work to get back beyond where you were before."
Beal's return is its final stage. By May, he was no longer reporting lingering pain or discomfort in the knee and was allowed to participate fully in summer drills. Now, with camp underway and three weeks left until the Gophers open the season at UNLV, he is attempting to rapidly regain his playing tempo.
So far, Beal is happy with his progress. Aspects of the skill set that made him a touted prospect seem intact. His bountiful enthusiasm and wry grin are back. No hesitation in his movements can be sensed from watching him practice. Any lapses in his timing and speed are softened by his obvious physicality and athleticism.
After watching Beal throughout the summer, Klein said he looks as good as "I've ever seen him."
Beal is being inserted mainly with the second team defense, jockeying for playing time at middle linebacker behind Rallis along with senior Ryan Grant.
"I know what Coach Miller and everyone wants out of me," Beal said. "I'm hoping to be that guy. Right now, I'm just showing them that my knee is back to normal. The biggest thing when you're out is getting reps. I feel that it is going well."
There is a firm confidence within the Gophers' coaching staff that Beal is capable of having an impact this season and adding needed depth in the middle. As long as the knee holds up, Beal will get his chances.
"I think he's worked very hard," Kill said. "I watched him on film. He did some good things. He's put a whole lot of work into it. With all the things he's gone through you are certainly rooting for him."
• Senior cornerback Michael Carter continues to have great start to camp. Carter, who is a currently starter on the depth chart, appears much more mentally checked in than he has at any point in his career. It is still early to make rash judgments on whether Carter can indeed improve upon three seasons in which he fell far short of expectations. But Kill has noticed the change in his approach.
"I think the mindset started coming in the spring and through to the fall of this is the way we're going to do it and this is how we're going to do it," Kill said. "I'm proud of him to this point ... I certainly hope he continues to do what he's doing, because it makes us a better football team."
• Of the Gophers' two freshmen quarterbacks, Mitch Leidner has looked much better in the first four days of camp than his counterpart, Philip Nelson. Leidner has come across as relaxed and composed under center, while Nelson has been easy to rattle. Several passes from Nelson on Tuesday were shaky, including one that Carter picked off during seven-on-sevens.
• The Gophers plan to hold their first practice in full pads on Wednesday and again on Thursday in the afternoon session of the first two-a-day of camp. A scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium is slated for Friday at 10:25 a.m.