NOTRE DAME, Ind. - When Lo Wood suffered a season-ending injury last fall he did not even realize he was injured. Wood was backpedaling at practice while breaking down to cover a wide receiver on an out route. The Fighting Irish cornerback suddenly felt something in his left Achilles tendon, but he was not immediately thinking the worst.
"It felt like someone kicked me in the back of my ankle," Wood recalled recently. "At first I thought it was one of the safeties who hit me in the back of my ankle, but apparently it wasn't."
"I got up and tried walking again, but I really couldn't get very far," he continued. "I got close enough to the side where my teammates came and helped me off the field."
Wood, who was less than two weeks from making his first career start at corner, said the initial pain from the injury was not very bad. However, after he was off the field at the LaBar Practice Complex the Notre Dame training staff knew immediately that his Achilles had been torn and told him he would not be able to play all season.
"I was sad to tell you the truth," Wood said of the sudden reality his injury delivered. "When you finally get a chance to start, but then knowing you're done for the season and knowing you have to come back and do everything over again. It's heartbreaking. I really had to suck it up. The first couple weeks I was really down on myself."
Wood had played in 21 games over his first two seasons at Notre Dame, but he had never started. With his team's depth at the position thin, a starting job opposite Bennett Jackson was all but locked-up for him for Notre Dame's season-opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Instead, Wood missed that game and the next 11 the Irish played in their unblemished regular season.
"The first couple games it was actually hard to watch the games," Wood said of watching his teammates play without him. "Sometimes I didn't even want to go out and watch the games, because all you want to do is be out there and help your team win. But once you see your team win every Saturday all you can do is be happy for them and not worry about yourself - just be happy for the team."
Freshman KeiVarae Russell stepped-in and took Wood's spot in the lineup and. Despite some expected early mishaps (a 25-yard Navy touchdown pass) Russell did well. Wood was there to help Russell through the early growing pains, but the freshman did not need help for long.
"I would give him tips on how to do things," Wood said of his sideline tutoring with Russell. "But by the time the end of the season came he was on his game and doing what he needed to do, so there really wasn't much for me to say to him anymore."
The task Wood, who has two remaining seasons of eligibility beginning with the 2013 season, now faces is getting back up to speed to compete for a job this spring. Step one of the task is already complete. Wood checked that off his list when he backpedaled again for the first time during rehab.
"I started moving around about the time we got back from semester (break), about a week after we started winter ball," Wood recalled. "I started moving around and doing some light agility ladders and stuff. When February hit, that's when I got into it at full speed."
Wood's rehab has gone so well he says he does not even feel like he had a torn Achilles just seven months ago. There was some early trepidation about going hard during his drills, but the fear is out of his system now.
"I don't feel like I had one at all," Wood said. "I feel like when I go out there I don't hesitate to do any kind of move or step or come out of my backpedal."
Notre Dame co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks has had the closest eye on Wood for the last two-plus years. Cooks has watched Wood come back from the injury and can hardly believe the 5'10 corner ever even had an injury.
"I don't even see it," Cooks said of any traces of Wood's injury. "It doesn't even seem like it existed the way he's practicing right now."
"This is my first experience dealing with a defensive back that's had to come off an Achilles and you wouldn't even know that he had a rupture last year," Cooks said of Wood's performance during the team's first week of spring practice. "The way that he's practiced from offseason to now - there's no hesitation. There's no lack of confidence."
Considering the success both Russell and Jackson enjoyed on the stellar Irish defense in 2012, it might seem an uphill battle for Wood to see much playing time next fall, but that is not the case. Cooks and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco are used to employing a deep rotation in the defensive backfield that they could not use last year due to thin ranks. A three-man rotation of Jackson, Russell and Wood is easy for the coach to envision next season.
"It's built into our system," Cooks said recently of playing at least three corners in a game. "If you go back to prior to last year the way we've always played at corner and safety is we've always had guys that we felt we could rotate in."
"When I had D. (Darrin) Walls, RJ (Robert Blanton) and Gary (Gray) all three of those guys just rotated in every three, three, three, so my speech to the guys that are battling for time to play is 'If you show you can play we're gonna get you on the field', whether that be every other series or every three plays."
How much playing time Wood gets next season is on Wood himself. He says showing that he can come back at the same level he was last fall is his biggest goal this spring. There is more depth at the position now, but there is still opportunity.
"It depends on to what level they've raised their play to," Cooks said of how much playing time Wood might get in a three-man rotation. "We want to play as many guys as we can, especially with the offenses we face, but they've gotta demonstrate that when they go in there there's no drop off."
The other bonus another cornerback gives the Irish next season is the ability to be more diversified with their defense. Brian Kelly said last week that they were never able to use dime coverage, simply because they did not have enough corners that could play. Having a healthy Wood back next season will take care of that and possibly allow an already good defense to get better.
"He's coming back and he's like he was when he left off, which is awesome," Cooks said of Wood's play so far. "Now he's gotta get some fluidity and (comfort) about running around and flipping his hips against other guys, because he hasn't done that in a year."
Just one week of spring football is in the books, but Wood is already feeling back at home at cornerback.
"It feels good," Wood said of his return. "Going seven months without football (and) coming back is always a great thing."