COLUMBIA — Practice lingered on Donovan Bonner as he made his way off the field Saturday morning.
Sweat glistened on his face and arms, a product of the sticky humidity of the indoor air. His left arm and cheek were speckled with small black dots, making it appear as if he had abnormally thick stubble on his face. No such thing. Little pebbles of crumb rubber, the filler under the turf, clung to his skin as a testament to the effort the linebacker has been putting into his work this first week of spring practices for the Missouri football team.
“It’s good to be back,” Bonner said, inhaling deeply.
He wasn’t tired. He wasn’t out of breath. He was exhilarated.
Bonner hadn’t put on his pads in nearly a year. He tore his left ACL at the beginning of preseason camp last season and missed the 2010 season. As devastating as Bonner’s injury was at the time, things only got worse for the Tigers' linebacking corps throughout the season.
After Bonner’s injury, senior captain Luke Lambert missed all but three games with a knee injury, and junior Will Ebner missed five games because of a suspension and foot problems. By the end of the season, Missouri was so desperate for linebackers that coach Gary Pinkel moved safety Jarrell Harrison to the position.
This year, things should be different for Pinkel and his squad. Lambert received a medical redshirt and will return for the 2011 season. Ebner had surgery in the offseason and should be practicing by April. And — maybe the biggest recovery of all — Bonner is healthy and practicing.
Obstacles remain. Red pullovers, missteps, botched plays and quick flashes of pain are issues the Missouri linebackers are facing. Lambert and Ebner remain on the sidelines, though Pinkel speculated they will be practicing after spring break. Even with that hope in mind, Ebner still struggles with the situation.
“Spring practices, they haven’t been that good,” Ebner said. “I’ve been on the sideline, watching and helping those guys.”
Ebner hates sitting out. He hates admitting he is injured. He hates the sideline. But as much as he wishes he were rid of the red pullover marking his injury, he knows he can still help his team. He has been critiquing the younger players and watching intently, and he is doing what he can to improve his game.
“It’s always hard for a guy to miss any time with football,” Bonner said. “But Will’s smart. He and Luke are both smart, and they’re both watching so much film and doing what they can.”
Bonner is one step ahead of his injured teammates. He said his leg feels great, but he still has a lot of work to accomplish in spring camp. It’s the little things — re-learning his steps, going over plays, tweaking his stance — that he is most focused on, and he knows that coming back from a torn ACL is no easy feat.
“Just as anyone, even guys who played last season, (Bonner) has been away from it for a while, and he has got little kinks here and there to be tuned up,” Ebner said.
When the three injured linebackers have all returned, though, Pinkel’s team will have something it only dreamed about last season: depth at linebacker. With so many injuries in 2010, younger players such as Zaviar Gooden and Andrew Wilson saw significant playing time and ended the season with impressive numbers. It’s the only upside to the injuries.
“Depth is always good,” Ebner said. “Not only is it good to have a lot of healthy guys, but it also creates competition at practices and helps people do better.”
The competition has begun. Bonner is a testament to that. His sweat, his excitement, his hard work. He knows he needs to prove himself, that there are talented players vying for his position, his playing time. It’s only a good thing. It keeps him going.