As the wins kept piling up and Notre Dame’s compass pointed toward a BCS bowl berth, Austin Collinsworth was hopeful he’d eventually be able to leave his mark on the 2012 season — one where he was sidelined through October while rehabilitating from offseason shoulder surgery.
Austin Collinsworth received instruction from Notre Dame safeties coach Bob Elliott.
Collinsworth, the son of NBC’s NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth, suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder on the last day of spring football practice a year ago, and after rest didn’t suffice, he underwent a corrective procedure in June leading up to what would have been his junior campaign.
After two seasons contributing on special teams (25 combined tackles) and switching from wide receiver to the defensive backfield as a sophomore, the 6-1, 202-pounder from Fort Thomas, Ky., watched his opportunity to play major minutes alongside Zeke Motta drop in the laps of rookies Matthias Farley (49 tackles, one pick) and Elijah Shumate (nine tackles, three quarterback hurries).
“Those are my guys; they’re all my best friends,” Collinsworth said. “It’s fun watching them succeed no matter what’s happening with me. It was hard. It was a really exciting season, and it was pretty terrible not being a part of it. But I liked watching my friends do well on the field.”
Collinsworth, who has been fielding punts with a number of others this spring, felt he was getting close to doing more than just watching by late October, but a tweaked back during a deadlift erased that possibility. Aggravating an old high school injury, he was once again out of commission and optimistic time would heal a bulging disc that was putting pressure on a nerve.
“It would have been kind of a tweener whether or not I would have played maybe in the championship game or something,” he said. “It would have been a hard situation, but I guess the decision was made for me with the back injury.
“I was feeling great up until that point. I’ll get an extra year out of it or who knows what will happen. We’ll make the most out of it.”
And when he hadn’t made much progress through rest alone over a couple weeks, the decision was made to have surgery from which he’s now about four months removed.
“When I first did it, I didn’t think it was that bad. It kept getting progressively worse and it just wouldn’t heal,” he said. “It’s one of those things in some people it will heal on its own. I kind of took the time to see if it would heal and get better. When it wasn’t, and I was approaching spring ball, I really needed to take care of it.”
He said he finally felt 100 percent just before the start of spring practices.
“I’ve been getting a little bit more reps at boundary safety than I usually do,” Collinsworth said. “It has been fun trying to really understand the defense as a whole now instead of just understanding the free safety position, which is kind of what I did last year. I think I have a much better concept of the big picture.
“You take a year off and you’re going to be a little bit rusty out there, but physically I feel great. Every day I’m starting to feel more and more like my old self.”
Gone is Motta, who started 29 games before running out of eligibility. Farley has firmly established himself as a starter, but it’s a position that will likely continue to be staffed by committee. Collinsworth is confident he’ll play a major role on the back line in 2013.
“Just really sharpening my skills,” he said of his goal this spring. “Taking a year off, I just really need to knock the rust off. As long as I can do that going into summer ball I’m going to be great.
“I was proud of those guys and how they stepped up. That’s just the way the game works. They’ve got the spot; now I just have to go after it. We’re getting a lot of guys reps back there. Spring is all about getting looks at guys and seeing how they can play football. In the summer we’re really going to start hardening down and setting a depth chart. Right now we’ve got a lot of good players back there and everyone is doing a great job.”
It’s safe to say few players, if any, have enjoyed the early mornings inside the Loftus Sports Center more than Collinsworth.
“It definitely makes you appreciate the game,” he said. “This is the first time I didn’t play football since I was probably 9 years old or something. Sitting on the sidelines, I was thinking, ‘Man, I really love this game. I really enjoy being out there.’ Now, even going out there and practicing is fun for me. It has been a little life altering.
“You kind of just get used to it and get in the flow of things. Definitely an injury can reset your perspective.”