NOTRE DAME, Ind. - What a difference a year makes. A year ago at this time Austin Collinsworth was garnering rave reviews from Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The junior defensive back had primarily been a special teams performer in his first two seasons, but Diaco slapped a moniker on his pupil that seemed to announce that Collinsworth's time had arrived.
"He's a werewolf," Diaco said of Collinsworth last spring. "I love that guy. He's hard not to like. He is all energy. He is a high-collision player. He is fast when he steps on the gas pedal."
"He's one of the more entertaining players to watch and be around," Diaco continued. "If your energy bucket is a little empty, hang around Austin a little bit and it'll be filled back up in a hurry."
The opportunity was open for Collinsworth last spring after the graduation of Harrison Smith. It seemed all but a sure thing that he would start alongside Zeke Motta at safety at the start of the 2012 season. All that changed in June when Collinsworth had surgery on his left shoulder. Instead of starting in the Irish defensive backfield, he was a spectator during Notre Dame's 12-0 regular season.
"It definitely makes you appreciate the game," Collinsworth said of watching his team from the sidelines last year. "I mean this was the first time I didn't play football since I was probably - I don't know - nine years old or something. So sitting on the sidelines I was thinking 'Man I really love this game'. I really enjoy being out there. Now even going out and even practicing is fun."
The Fort Thomas, KY native did not just spend last season as a spectator though. His absence meant an already thin defensive backfield was even thinner. The Irish had the experienced Motta at safety, but a slew of talented freshmen as potential candidates to play alongside him. Collinsworth spent his time, especially during training camp, helping coach-up the likes of Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate and eventual starter Matthias Farley, who was a scout team receiver as a freshman in 2011.
"I was just sitting around doing nothing," he said of pitching-in to help during practices. "So, I can coach-up those young guys. A lot of times at practice the coaches are really busy just taking care of the big picture on defense. So, for me to be able to sit down and talk to a guy about the intricacies of a particular coverage, I think, was really good for them."
Collinsworth's shoulder rehab was going smoothly last fall. By October he was back in the weight room with his eye on getting healthy and getting ready for winter conditioning while his teammates were busy rolling to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the BCS Championship Game.
"Those are my guys," Collinsworth said of the somewhat bittersweet experience of watching his team succeed without him. "They're all my best friends, so it (was) fun watching them succeed no matter what's happening to me."
What happened to him next hit him like a blind side tackle. Collinsworth was in the weight room in November when he suffered a second setback. While lifting weights he injured his back.
"I kind of reinjured it," Collinsworth said. "It was an old high school injury. I was lifting weights coming back from my shoulder injury. It's pretty unfortunate, but you've gotta roll with the punches and take it all in stride."
The back injury amounted to what Collinsworth termed a bulging disc that "had to be shaved". Collinsworth says he was feeling "great" with his shoulder rehab and overall physical condition up to that point. He was performing a dead lift when the second setback occurred.
"When I first did it I didn't think it was that bad," Collinsworth recalled. "It just kept getting progressively worse and it just wouldn't heal and so I had to take care of it."
He had the procedure performed in November, which meant he would not be able to take advantage of the extra practices with his team in the lead-up to the Jan. 7 game against Alabama. Collinsworth says he first felt one hundred percent physically about three weeks ago, which timed out perfectly for the start of spring practice.
"He looks like he's working very hard," Diaco said early this spring of watching Collinsworth back at practice. "He doesn't look physically capable to compete yet in terms of going into games and being back up to where he was, but every day he looks better and better."
"You take a year off - you're going to feel a little bit rusty out there, but physically I feel great," said Collinsworth of his current health. "Every day I'm starting to feel more and more like my old self.
In the most recent practice session the media was able to view this spring, Collinsworth was running at safety with the number two defensive unit, while Farley and Shumate were with the first team.
"I've been getting a little more reps at boundary safety than I usually do," Collinsworth said of his new duties this spring. "It's been fun trying to really understand the defense as a whole now instead of just understand the free safety position, which is kind of what I did last year. Now I think I'm getting a much better concept for the big picture."
Collinsworth moved quickly during the Wednesday (4/3) drills that were open to the media. Five months remain between now and the late August season-opener against Temple and his goals for the spring are simply to start to get back to form.
"Just really sharpening my skills," the senior said of his spring priority. "Taking that year off - I've just really gotta knock the rust off. As long as I can do that going into summer ball I'm gonna be great."
Special teams are where Collinsworth made a name for himself as a freshman and sophomore in 2010 and 2011. He had a team-best 14 tackles on kickoff returns and 16 total special teams tackles to earn Notre Dame's Special Teams Player of the Year award in '11. He has even dropped back as a potential punt returner.
"With Davonte' (Neal) leaving we need somebody to step up and fill that role back there," he appraised. "I'm not really sure who's gonna do it right now, but definitely I've been taking some reps."
Punt return has been an area of glaring deficiency for the Irish over the last couple seasons. Neal, who registered all 21 returns, averaged just 2.2 yards in that department last year. The 2011 season was only slightly better with a 3.7 yard average. Collinsworth may or may not eventually end up with the job, but he says he is game for now.
"I love returning punts," he said with a smile. "I did it for three years in high school. I had a ball doing it."
After sitting out a year with his two injuries, Collinsworth looks to be up for anything now. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining and calls sitting out last season a "life altering" event, but his injuries have "reset" his perspective.
"Now I feel great. I can't be mad about anything. It all happens for a reason, so I'll be alright."