Middle Tennessee junior forward Calvin O'Neil very well might have been ready for a breakout season last year.
He was set to be a fixture in the starting lineup, was one of the team's toughest and best defenders, and provided a consistent secondary scoring option.
All of the optimism for that breakout season came to a quick end though when O'Neil went down for the season with an ACL injury in the season opener against San Jose State.
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Several months of rehab followed and O'Neil could only watch as his teammates struggled early in the year to find its rhythm with him out of the lineup.
O'Neil's hard work to come back has paid off and he can now once again look toward the start of a new season with a lot of optimism.
He says he feels strong physically and will continue to feel better with a little more preseason training.
"I've still got improvement to go sliding to my left but everything else feels good," O'Neil said of his current condition. "Once I start working out extra with our strength trainer in the sandbox he says it should come back real soon."
O'Neil was cleared back in the spring to begin working out with the team again and playing pickup games.
Like any return from a serious injury, he said there were some ups and downs in the early going but he knew all along it would take patience as he worked to get back to full strength for tipoff of the 2008-09 season.
He can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Once they let me go play it felt good," O'Neil said. "Then when I went home and came back that's when (the process started) slowing down but now it's picked back up so now I can't wait for the first game."
No one is more happy to have O'Neil back than head coach Kermit Davis, who plans on using O'Neil more as a small four man this year capable of guarding three different positions.
In the Blue Raiders' offseason workouts, O'Neil has shown himself to be arguably the team's best pound-for-pound rebounder.
He sees himself as a player Davis can count on for consistency.
"(I'll have) pretty much the same role," O'Neil said about his return to action. "Go in and play hard, play good defense, and make smart plays. So not much has changed. I feel almost 100 percent really so Coach has confidence in me and I'm ready to go."
O'Neil was part of the special group that is now entering its senior year, but the knee injury ended up giving him another year of eligibility.
That connection he feels with the senior class though motivates him to want to help the team put together its first championship season in 20 years, but his injury has also caused him to take new perspective on his classroom work.
"Our main goal is to finish at the top in our conference and make it to the tournament and we want to have all four of our seniors graduate," he said. "Personally my goal for my last two years of school is to have a 3.5 GPA because you can get hurt anytime. I want to make sure I keep my grades straight."
GoMiddle.com Countdown to Tipoff
40 days-October 6th: Schedule full of challenges, opportunities
39 days-October 7th: Sun Belt newcomers to watch
38 days-October 8th: Strong memory motivates Yates
37 days-October 9th: Kanaskie in position to leave a legacy
36 days-October 10th: Johnson driving force behind MT attack
35 days-October 11th: O'Neil hopes to pick up where he left off