When linebacker Glenn Cook dislocated his first three toes and tore ligaments under the big toe on his left foot in August 2007, he hardly believed he would be standing on the University of Miami practice fields a year later.
Cook, who underwent surgery, had just begun his fifth season and presumably last year as a football player in Coral Gables.
But when the Hurricanes open against Charleston Southern on Thursday in their first regular-season home game at Dolphin Stadium, Cook is expected to start in the middle.
"I am extremely fortunate," Cook said of the NCAA's decision to grant him a sixth year of eligibility. "Everybody is not getting it. I saw that a quarterback from Cincinnati didn't get his."
Linebackers coach Micheal Barrow said his players have nicknamed Cook "Seabiscuit," after the undersized and eventually successful thoroughbred that was immortalized in a 2003 movie.
"He has overcome a lot," Barrow said. "Last year I felt so bad for him. But just like Seabiscuit he's bouncing back. He's one of our leaders. Guys look up to him. He's a coach on the field and an outstanding player. He kind of puts me in the mind-set of Zach Thomas, a guy who is a student of the game and plays beyond his ability."
Cook's experience and intelligence are considered substantial assets in this year's linebacker corps, which includes exceptional, young talent in freshmen Arthur Brown, Sean Spence and Jordan Futch.
"Sean is a playmaker," said Cook of Spence, at 6-0 and 207 pounds described by most as undersized. "You might not look at him and see a linebacker initially, but he makes plays and he's a real smart kid."
Spence was practicing in fall camp behind projected weak-side starter Colin McCarthy, who sat out the spring with a shoulder injury but will be one of the defensive leaders this season.
"My coverage and running to the ball are the best parts of my game," said Spence, who was nicknamed "the Eraser, Sean all-over-the-field Spence and Sean don't-run-my-way-no-more Spence" last season at Miami Northwestern High. "We're going to have an unstoppable defense -- a lot of blitzing schemes, just stressing getting to the ball. We're going to be very aggressive."
Projected to start at strong side is Darryl Sharpton, a junior from Coral Gables who played in 11 games last season and started at all three linebacker positions in the last five games. But Sharpton battled hamstring injuries all season. He said he's fine now, though at one point during fall camp he was limping heavily.
"We're working very hard to get things better," he said. "This year we'll be coming from all different directions."
Brown, 6-2 and 223 pounds, was a Parade All-American rated by scout.com as the top prospect at any position. As a senior in at Wichita East High in Kansas, he had 151 tackles, 10 sacks and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Brown practiced behind Sharpton at fall camp. He said the best part of his game was his "relentless heart. My body will do whatever it takes to get the ball."
As will Futch, a lifelong Hurricanes fan who graduated from Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna and was rated by rivals.com as the 12th-best player in Florida. "We've been preaching about getting the little things done."
Barrow said the new players automatically make the Canes better because the position finally has depth, not to mention teenagers with impressive pedigrees. "The thing about those guys is they come from championship programs," Barrow said. "They want to be the best."