There was a time when senior Austin Collinsworth thought he might never be his full self on a football field again. He did his best to rid himself of the doubt, but after spending nearly a full year trying to mend one injury or another it crept into the back of his mind.
Irish senior Austin Collinsworth is listed as a starter on Notre Dame's depth chart this week.
The Irish safety finished the spring of 2012 expecting to be the third man in a veteran three-man rotation when he returned to campus months later. Shoulder surgery in June delayed those plans until at the least the midway point of what turned out to be a 12-1 season. But a back injury and more rehab followed, and Collinsworth watched the rest of Notre Dame’s run to the national championship game from the sidelines.
“Basically, I just never stopped rehabbing,” he said. “As soon as I was like, ‘All right, I can kind of get out of rehab with the shoulder, it was right into the back.’ I got really good at rehab.”
Rehab is over for Collinsworth. His payoff comes Saturday when he’ll start as the last line of defense for the Irish in their season opener against Temple — the first start of injury-plagued career.
Collinsworth’s spot atop the depth chart came as a slight surprise last week. He learned about it while flipping through his Twitter feed and had to swallow a bit of a smile. For most of training camp, the senior was stuck behind the fast and physical Elijah Shumate.
Shumate, a sophomore, cut his teeth as a nickel back last season. He shined in the spring and entered fall camp as the clear No. 1 at the position. Collinsworth bounced between backing up Shumate and the boundary safety Matthias Farley. The competition will continue during the season, but as the rust continued to fall off for Collinsworth he has at least pulled even with his competition.
“Both will play,” head coach Brian Kelly said earlier this week. “I think it's a 1A, 1B situation. Depending on where we are in the game, down and distance, a lot of those factors will be involved. I think you've got to look at both of those guys playing an equal amount of football.”
Equal playing time didn’t seem like a possibility for Collinsworth at the end of spring practice. He told reported he felt “98 percent” healthy, but later admitted that he was just trying to convince himself he was further along than he was. His coaches could tell he was a step slower. And when Collinsworth was being honest with himself he knew, too, that his body sometimes wasn’t able to do what he asked it to do.
Irish assistant Bob Elliott sent Collinsworth home in May with instructions to return to fall camp in better physical shape. Elliott and the rest of the Irish staff asked Collinsworth to get back to the reckless, full-speed bursts he showed during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
He returned kickoffs during those years. He racked up 25 tackles while chasing down punts and kicks and making the occasional appearance as a dime back on defense. At the end of his sophomore season, Collinsworth won the team's special teams player of the year award. He says he never lost the spirit to make those plays, just the strength to do them last season.
“Mentally, maybe I have a screw loose, but I never really thought about it,” he said. “I would go out there and run through a brick wall if they asked me to.”
When camp began at the beginning of the month Collinsworth said he could “just flat out do it” again. Because he had more years in Notre Dame’s defense than any of his fellow safeties, Collinsworth played both field and boundary positions while some of the newcomers tried to learn their responsibilities.
Two weeks into camp, the staff moved him permanently to the field positions. He started to play side-by-side with Farley, an incumbent starter, and the two immediately clicked.
Farley took the job that likely would have been Collinsworth’s had he been healthy last September. A sophomore and first-year player on defense at the time, he stepped in when fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles in the third week of the season. He played almost all of the final 10 games of the season and secured a starting job for the future. Collinsworth said he watched Farley closely as he chipped away at his rehab, and he never doubted his teammate had the skills to perform if given the chance.
“A lot of this game in college football is just getting the opportunity to show the world you can at some point,” he said.
For a while, it looked like that chance was slipping away for Collinsworth. Now it’s staring him in the face. Against Temple, the veteran safety will finally get his chance to show the world he can.