- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- If anything good has come of the past 18 months for Jacobbi McDaniel, it's that he's learned the value of discipline and patience.
From the meticulously frustrating climb up the stairs to his second-floor apartment, inching his immobilized leg up one step at a time, to the agonizing meals in the team dining hall, skimping on calories because he couldn't exercise while his teammates feasted, every day was a test of McDaniel's willpower.
After 18 months of grueling rehab and recovery, the senior defensive tackle is finally healthy and ready to make up for lost time, but he hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned.
"I can't make up for the past," McDaniel said. "All I can do is the best I can. But if I play to my potential, and I help my team win, the sky's the limit."
As McDaniel fights his way back to relevance after a year-and-a-half away from the field, he's focused on the small details that will allow him one last chance at glory. But for Florida State fans who drooled at the potential of the once prized recruit, it's the gory details of one injury after another, including the gruesome broken ankle in 2011, that have defined his career.
McDaniel was the top defensive tackle in the country when he signed with Florida State in 2009, and while he occasionally showed flashes of that potential afterward, those moments became increasingly rare. As a freshman, he recorded 25 tackles in limited playing time, then upped that total to 31 as a sophomore. He battled groin and shoulder injuries, and now he admits that the physical wear and tear diminished his play.
"I went through the injuries, but it was still certain things I could've controlled," McDaniel said. "I went out there and played hesitant a little bit because of injuries because I'd never experienced it."
The earlier injuries were nothing compared with what happened against Duke in FSU's sixth game in 2011.
In the chaos following a turnover on Duke's first drive of the game, a teammate rolled onto McDaniel's ankle. The pain was immediate and intense. McDaniel fractured his fibula, and doctors said if the ankle hadn't been so heavily taped for the game, the bone likely would have broken through the skin -- an injury McDaniel compared to the one famously suffered by Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware during this year's NCAA tournament.
McDaniel had surgery to repair the break, but for the next eight months, he was unable to put any pressure on his leg.
"I couldn't put a toe down," McDaniel said. "I stayed disciplined, keeping it up for eight-and-a-half months. That's hard."
McDaniel tried to find distractions. He worked out his upper body tirelessly. He spent hours in the film room studying. He tried to stay active with the team, looking for any opportunity to engage in a conversation that might take his mind off his situation.
But for all of McDaniel's efforts, he couldn't help but feel isolated.
"We'd go out as a team just to have fun and get close to your teammates, and I couldn't go," he said. "I'm in the scooter. For eight months."
When fall camp began in 2012, McDaniel hoped he might be able to find his way back on to the field. He'd go through light drills, but the pain would return and he'd need to sit out the next few practices. As the season neared, it was obvious he wasn't ready. He accepted a redshirt, delaying his senior season until 2013.
"When everybody else is at practice, you're doing rehab by yourself," McDaniel said. "That's an every day thing. Sometimes you can get real down. But it's mind over matter. I knew what I had to do."
The tide finally began to turn this winter. A hamstring injury limited him during fourth-quarter drills -- the result of renewed activity after such a long layoff -- but the ankle felt strong. By the start of spring practice, McDaniel was beginning to look like his old self.
His return hasn't been flawless. He's spent as much time practicing alongside walk-ons as he has with the starters, and on more than a few occasions, he struggled to match up against FSU's talented offensive linemen.
"Going up against those guys every day, they'll bring the best out of you, and the worst," McDaniel said. "Because if you don't do what you need to do, you're going to get embarrassed. And a couple times this spring, I've gotten embarrassed -- but that's a good thing because I can go back into the film room and see what I've done wrong and turn it around. I'm just trying to get my feet wet."
Still, McDaniel made obvious progress. From the start of spring to the end, Jimbo Fisher said he saw marked improvement, and while the depth chart at defensive tackle is crowded with potential, McDaniel clearly has a role.
After nearly two full years away from the game he loves, that's all McDaniel is asking for.
"Football is my life. If I couldn't play football anymore, it'd be a real depressing moment," he said. "I've been out almost two years. Put me out there with the [fourth-string defense]. I'm coming back to play football. It don't matter to me."
McDaniel understands it's going to take more of that patience and discipline for him to get back to full strength and make an impact this season, so he's mixing his optimism with realism as he preps for fall camp.
Still, four years after he arrived amid so much excitement, he knows what fans think of him now.
"Just for people to say I'm a bust, that really does something to me," he said.
Too much time has already been wasted, but there's still a season left. McDaniel's career didn't unfold the way he'd hoped, and there's no changing the past. But one year still remains for him to become the player he'd always wanted to be, and for the first time in a long time, he's ready to do it.
"I still have one season to prove myself," McDaniel said. "And I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong."
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