Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In the nine months between his last sack and the one he registered late in Florida’s win over Bowling Green on Saturday, Gators junior defensive tackle Dominique Easley endured.
He endured countless rehab sessions. He spent tedious hours planting and cutting on the left knee he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in last season against Florida State. He contemplated if he would be the same player once the knee healed.
Easley returned to action against the Falcons and recorded Florida’s only sack of the game. It was also his only tackle of the game.
“I played all right,” Easley said. “I wouldn’t say it was my best game, but I played OK.”
Simply being back on the field was what Easley looked forward to most. While his teammates prepared to face Ohio State in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day, Easley spent much of his time walking around the team hotel with his dog in tow.
Easley underwent surgery to repair his damaged knee days after he planted his leg awkwardly in the second quarter of the Gators’ 21-7 loss to FSU in November.
Before getting hurt, Easley had two tackles and assisted on a 5-yard sack. And then his season was over and rehab loomed.
The mental hurdles also crept in once Easley adjusted to life on his rebuilt knee. He missed spring practice but was ready for the start of fall camp last month.
Easley said it didn’t take long to overcome any lingering doubts about if his knee was stable enough to play the high-energy kind of game he prefers.
Asked how soon he overcame the final mental hurdle, Easley responded: “Second practice.”
“What told you that?”
“I just needed to get my feet wet,” Easley said. “I was just nervous that I was going to injure it again.”
Easley made it through fall camp healthy and started at defensive end in the season opener.
Before the game started, Gators coach Will Muschamp could tell Easley was antsy. Muschamp came over and asked how Easley felt. Easley told him he was ready, and once the game started, Muschamp liked what he saw from a player coming off major knee surgery.
“I thought he was solid,” Muschamp said. “I thought he played well and I thought he played hard, got some good pressure. I thought he did a nice job”
A 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive tackle from Staten Island, N.Y., Easley arrived at UF as one of the nation’s top defensive line recruits.
He emerged last season into one of Florida’s top defensive lineman, recording 37 tackles — 7 1/2 tackles for loss — in 12 games.
Teammate Jelani Jenkins was impressed at how Easley played in his first game back.
“He looked like himself,” Jenkins said. “He was real destructive like always.”
Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said there is no limit on how much Easley can play. The knee is healthy and now it’s just a matter of Easley rediscovering his feel for the game.
“As a player coming back from an ACL, you have to get that first practice in. ‘OK, I’m good.’ You have to get the first contact on it,” Quinn said Wednesday. “And then the last step is you have to get the first game in to say, ‘Alright, I’m back and I’m ready to play.’ For him going through that process was really important. I’m pleased.”
Like the first practice of camp, Easley said he was nervous prior to Saturday’s game. Once he finally got on the field and got into the flow of the game, the nerves went away and his natural energy returned.
That is something Quinn never worried about.
“It was awesome to see him out there,” Quinn said. “He always plays really hard. That’s kind of his trademark, his calling card — his effort, his toughness, the way he can play and finish. The guy has such passion for playing.
“He was so excited to play. You could see it. I think it was important for him to get back.”
Easley’s goal Saturday was simple. Stay healthy. He did that.
Now he wants to produce. The past nine months have prepared him for that challenge perhaps better than prior to the injury.
“It’s more of a slowed-down game now,” he said. “I feel stronger, faster.”