TEMPE, Ariz. -- “It feels good getting back out there."
The long, winding road that has been Kyle Middlebrooks' career finally seems to be straightening after being derailed by a series of injuries, setbacks, and crowded depth charts.
Now finally healthy, Middlebrooks has been among the top standouts during the first week of ASU's spring practice.
“I’m feeling pretty well,” said Middlebrooks. “The knee is feeling good. The shoulder is feeling good. My body is feeling well, and I’m near 100 percent.”
Middlebrooks' most recent obstacle was a torn ACL suffered during the Territorial Cup match-up against Arizona in November of 2012. That injury ended a dreadful year that began in the spring with surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder. In between was a forgettable year that limited him to a total of four touches.
The Fountain Valley, Calif. native came to Arizona State in 2010 and quickly became a valuable piece on offense and special teams as a true freshman. He was the team's third-leading rusher in 2011 with 150 yards, and added 19 receptions to his continuing duty as a kickoff returner.
Things were looking bright for Middlebrooks. Then came 2012.
“It was exciting at the beginning, but once you get into your career, things happen,” Middlebrooks reflects. “It’s all about how you overcome it and get through it. That’s where I am right now."
In addition to the shoulder injury setting him back, the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Middlebrooks had to learn a new position, as he was moved from running back to wide receiver by new head coach Todd Graham.
“It was just one of those things that just happens," said Middlebrooks of the position change. "They change guys and move guys. Guys come in. It’s a process. Sometimes you can’t help it, and you just go do what you do.”
While Middlebrooks does prefer to play running back, he says the experience out wide added to his already versatile skillset.
"I get out there and know how to run some routes that other guys may not know," Middlebrooks said. "At the same time, it can hinder you at times because of the flip-flopping."
Following the ACL tear, Middlebrooks took a redshirt year to recover and rehabilitate his knee, but through it all, Middlebrooks continued to battle and hold his confidence in himself.
“It’s all about having faith,” said Middlebrooks. “There’s going to be guys coming and going, and you’re going to be sitting on the side watching. It’s all about having faith, working hard, and believing in yourself.”
Over this past offseason with his health back on track, Middlebrooks began to devote more time to understanding the offense and the nuances of the game. This will be his third year in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's scheme, a system that demands a lot of its players.
“Getting stronger, and more mental,” said Middlebrooks. “It’s been more mental aspects and getting into the playbook, watching more film. When you are a senior, it’s a whole different mindset that you have.”
Having now moved back to running back, Middlebrooks is feeling more comfortable and showcasing the explosiveness that defined his first two seasons. Over the first week of spring practices, Middlebrooks has made several impressive cuts and had lengthy touchdown plays as both a runner and receiver.
Yet for all of the positive momentum, the path to the field will be still be tough for Middlebrooks.
D.J. Foster, designated the team's "premier back" by Graham, will open the year as the team's starter, with fellow senior Deantre Lewis also vying for carries. ASU also signed three highly-rated recruits in their 2014 class—Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes—that many expect to make a strong push for immediate playing time.
Despite the crowded depth chart, Middlebrooks sees a role for himself in the Sun Devil offense.
"I like the position that I am at and what I’m doing," said Middlebrooks. “I see my role as being a playmaker. Going out in a route, maybe a certain play, get a yard, make a big play for a touchdown.”
He's also in line to retake his old job as the Sun Devils' kickoff returner, a role in which he average nearly 24 yards per return in his career.
“That’s been one of my main focuses," Middlebrooks said of returning kicks. "I'm trying to catch some kicks and working with Coach Pflu (Aaron Pflugrad), and working on punts a little bit more. I feel like that is another thing I have to offer the team.”
There still a long way to go until ASU's season opener on Aug. 28 against Weber State, but so far, 2014 has seen a promising start to Middlebrooks' final year. He hopes to continue his strong start into a big season, realizing that it's his last chance to make a name for himself in Tempe.
“I want to leave a positive legacy that you can overcome anything; injuries, sitting out, redshirting, seeing guys go ahead of you,” said Middlebrooks. “I had injuries and surgeries, but now it’s to the point that it’s do or die.
"I just want to go out there and make plays.”