GAINESVILLE, Fla. - It was the little things that Ronald Powell missed the most.
Running out of the tunnel before games. Celebrating sacks with teammates. Seeing his name on the depth chart in the defensive meeting room.
He may have taken those minor details for granted his first two years at Florida. But after two operations on his left knee in a five-month span forced him to miss all of last season, the fourth-year junior has a newfound appreciation for those often overlooked aspects of the game. And that should make his return all the more special Saturday.
Powell, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker who led the team in sacks as a sophomore, will play his first game since the 2011 season when the 10th-ranked Gators open the season against Toledo.
"Going through something like this and something you never thought you'd go through, it doesn't matter how humble you are, you get humbler," Powell said this week. "It's a different experience. You learn to find value in things you may not have valued before."
Powell had a team-high six sacks in 2011 and played his best football down the stretch that season, coming up with big plays against Georgia, Vanderbilt, Florida State and Ohio State.
He followed that up with an impressive spring. Coaches raved about his pass-rushing ability and his versatility at the Buck position in Florida's multi-look defense. He had the speed to blow by offensive tackles and cover tight ends, and the size to be effective in stopping the run.
All Powell's progress, though, came to a halt on April 7, 2012, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during the team's spring game.
Powell attacked his rehab like he did opposing quarterbacks, and coach Will Muschamp spent the entire summer predicting the Moreno Valley, Calif., would play in 2012. It was welcome news for teammates and fans - all of whom saw how the kid who was widely considered the overall No. 1 prospect coming out of high school in 2010 had been developing.
Then it happened again.
Powell reinjured his left knee while working out last September.
He was a month away from his self-imposed return; he had been hoping to get back on the field against LSU in early October. Instead, he was back under the knife, back on crutches and back to wondering whether how his body would respond.
"The most difficult thing is to not be able to play, to not know how I'm ever going to be playing again or if I ever will play again," Powell said. "Just that thought of losing something that you love you so much, which is the game we play, which is a lifestyle, it's scary.
"When it first happened to me, I kept thinking about the people that lose their jobs at 30 years old, 40 years old, and they can't handle it. They commit suicide and things like that. At that point of my life, I had to realize that life without football, it may come a time where it's life without football, so that was the hardest thing."
Powell could have sulked, and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he attended meetings and practices, refusing to get too far away from the game.
And given the way his knee has healed, Powell won't have to worry about life without football anytime soon.
He was full go when camp started earlier this month and proved to be a bright spot for a revamped defense that lost eight starters after last season.
"He and I talked a little bit about coming back, especially early on, cutting it loose, playing," Muschamp said. "You've seen him gain more confidence each time in contact. ... And that's the thing you worry about is a guy really cutting it loose and playing. And I've seen a guy that kind of early on - tentative is not the right word, as he wasn't tentative - but cautious and then now you're seeing him cut it loose and play, and that's what you got to do.
"But it'll come back fast for him as far as the tempo and speed of the game. I'm sure he'll have some anxious moments. That's part of it."
Powell agreed, saying he expects butterflies when he runs onto the field Saturday - one of those little things he missed so much - for the first time in nearly two years.
"It's close. It's here," he said. "It's like my dream is about to come true again. To run out there again. So I'm just kind of excited and ready for what God's got in store for me."
Saturday's game will air live on Channel 4, with kickoff at 12:21 p.m.
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