By TOM LEA
MADISON – When recovering from a serious injury, especially psychologically, sometimes getting tackled and feeling the physicality of the game that you’ve missed for a great amount of time is the recipe to overcome any hesitancy.
Suddenly the conscious isn’t resting entirely on when the foot (in Devin Smith’s and David Gilbert’s case) is going to give out again. You’ve been tackled, you’ve done the tackling and you’ve popped up, foot intact.
It’s at that moment when the light has morphed from a cautious yellow to a gallant green.
“I really feel like the main thing was being able to put the pressure on my foot and being able to cut,” Smith, who claims to be ‘100 percent back to normal,’ said following Thursday’s practice. “(I can) make plays in the back end and (I’m) able to break on the receivers and play aggressive, able to compete and contest all the routes.
“I feel like that boosted my confidence.”
Gilbert, who suffered somewhat of a fluke season-ending injury in the days leading up to the Nebraska game when his foot slipped under the turf during practice and broke, said he knew his confidence was restored shortly after Monday’s fall camp opener.
By making it through that practice without any hiccups, Gilbert knew his foot was back on track. More specifically, he planted hard on his injured foot during a hoop drill portion of practice, something that seemed to prove his recovery had gone smoothly and something that alluded to the strength that had escaped that body part for the better part of a year.
“I came hard around the hoop,” Gilbert said. “No pain. Don’t worry about it. No pain, keep going. Coming off the edge, especially on that left side and on my right foot, I’ve got to be able to bend hard. Coach (Charlie) Partridge is coaching us real hard to bend hard.
“We’re trying to get better at our pass rush as we speak. We’ve got to get there.”
The conviction in Gilbert’s voice hinted at the level of relief he has knowing he’s able to practice each and every day without fear of re-injuring his foot that endured two surgeries within the past calendar year.
He saw what happened throughout the course of the Big Ten season a year ago (inconsistent pass rush, missed tackles, heartbreaking losses) and almost certainly opined on occasion in regard to what he saw during his tenure on the sideline.
“The defense could always use a starter,” Gilbert said, in reference to himself being a starting contributor. “When one’s not there you’re going to notice, but I took it as time to coach the young guys because the things you teach (help) you get better yourself.
“I firmly believe in that so I just took that as an opportunity to get our team better, get myself better.”
Smith, through his time pacing the sidelines, felt similar.
“There were some things the coaches were talking about that I was able to see from the sideline or in the press box,” Smith said. “I think it definitely helped me overall. One thing I had pride in was being a student of the game. I definitely grew in that situation. I feel like I gained a lot of knowledge and am able to carry it on to the field.
“I feel like I didn’t lose a step. I feel like I haven’t been away from the game that long.”
But he has been away for quite some time.
Smith suffered his season ending injury during UW’s second game of the regular season. Gilbert suffered his prior to the team’s fifth. Combined, Gilbert and Smith missed 22 potential starts.
That, more than anything, is what the duo is excited about entering 2012. They both bring plenty of experience and ability to a defense that needs to improve on the inconsistencies that plagued it a year ago.
“We definitely want to be the strength on the team,” Smith said. “We feel that it takes a strong defense to win championships. We have a lot of veterans a lot of people have had a lot of playing experience in the past. We definitely know what we’re doing.
“We just have to keep building that chemistry every single day and that camaraderie and making sure we’re on top of our game when it comes to the first game against Northern Iowa.”