This is not exactly how Nick Sukay envisioned his career at Penn State playing itself out.
A little more than four months following surgery for a completely torn left pectoral muscle, Sukay is still on the mend, but remains optimistic for his senior season as a Nittany Lion.
"I feel good. I don't think I'm going to be 100 percent until summertime probably as far as the strength goes in my pec," he said Friday afternoon. "My weights in the weight room are back to normal. They've been back to normal for maybe a month and a half or two months now with everything except for my left pec. So, until summertime, I won't be 100 percent, but I'll do probably almost everything in spring ball I'd imagine except I don't know how much full contact I'll be doing as far as scrimmages and everything go. But, besides that, I want to do everything with the team."
Suffering from a foot injury that appeared during preparations for the Alamo Bowl his true freshman year and nagged and sidelined him for his second year of eligibility, Sukay returned to the field at free safety as a redshirt sophomore. He led the team in pass breakups (11) and passes defended (13), and added 41 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Building on the experience, Sukay hit his stride last season, grabbing two interceptions against Temple and another at Iowa.
So when Sukay tore his left pectoral muscle midway through the season against Illinois - at least partially when he stripped Jack Ramsey's opening kickoff return, and fully by the time Mikel Leshoure hit him square on the shoulder for the third time that afternoon - the injury amounted to a significant mental blow. Forced to the sidelines for the final seven games of the 2010 season, Sukay struggled but held out hope for a bowl game return before finally realizing its impossibility.
"It's real hard, actually. The hardest time is on Saturdays. You're there watching your team play, or even if your team is away, you're watching it on TV or something," he said. "You're not used to that. You're used to being out there with the guys that you're watching on the field. If they're struggling, you really wish you could be out there then to try to help them out and bring everyone up a little bit. Even when they're doing well, you want to be out there celebrating with them and having a good time with them too.
"In my head, that's what I was thinking. No one wants to sit on the sidelines and watch their team play. I was trying to get back, so it gave me something to try to shoot for. Obviously, it didn't happen and I didn't want to risk anything for the future and next year. But, it still gave me something to shoot for, and realistically, I kind of knew that it was a long shot but it still gave me something to shoot for."
Now, with spring practice in his sights, Sukay might have to temper his expectations again.
While he's planning to participate in everything but full contact work, Sukay admitted that as long as the possibility for reinjury remains, he needs to be cautious.
"It's been four months exactly since I had surgery. It's always been something in my head, no matter what I do, if I want to do the littlest thing, it's always in my head that maybe this doesn't feel right and I should stop, or things here and there that you just have to watch out for," he said. "I'm sure it'll happen at least the first couple of practices where I'll be a little cautious about it. That will take time but I know if I get through spring ball, then come August, I know I'll be 110 percent ready to go."
With the physical recovery simply a matter of time now, Sukay's biggest remaining hurdle could be restoring his confidence to the level it was when the injury occurred. While he plans to improve his tackling, angles and instincts, Sukay said it was his confidence level that was a critical contributor to his success last season. Feeling as though he had begun to make the mark he'd always intended last season, Sukay has no intention of a letdown for the season ahead.
"I'm a guy who runs a lot off of confidence and that's what really made it frustrating when I got injured because I really started to feel a lot of confidence over the past couple of games and then I went down," he said. "So, that was the most frustrating part about it because I felt like I was just out there playing and I wasn't thinking. I was just playing, I was relaxed and it felt good. That was really what took a toll on me when I got hurt."
For teammate and fellow senior safety Drew Astorino, he and the team have no question about Sukay's confidence returning to the level it was last season.
"He knows he's a good player, and everybody, especially the guys on this football team, knows what kind of a player he is," Astorino said. "I don't know if the general public knows, just because he's had some unfortunate injuries. But, he understands that's how football is, and he's coming back, he's working hard, and he's going to have a big season.
"He came out of the gates so strong last year and we could have really used him. Obviously Malcolm (Willis) came in and did a phenomenal job all season, awesome job. But, Nick's a playmaker. He's a great player and he just hasn't gotten a chance to show what he can do yet.
"I think this is his year. If he stays healthy, he's going to be a bigtime player for our defense, and a leader."
Sukay couldn't agree more.
"Definitely in the big games I want to make a difference. I want to be the playmaker for our defense," he said. "I just want to make all the plays I should make, and then make the big plays too. I just want to be more consistent.
"I know what I can do and I just want to put that into four quarters of football and a whole season of football."