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By LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON — No matter how hard his rehabilitation was or how difficult it was for him to miss spring practice, Derrick Locke never worried about what other running backs were doing or which incoming freshmen backs would join the team this year.

“Honestly, I don’t think about it. I don’t really care. I will just be honest: I don’t care,” said Locke, who injured his left knee midway through last season. “When I get back, I am ready to work. If they ask, I tell them the truth. ‘Don’t be comfortable.’ I am not saying I will come back and be the man. But when I come back, I am going to work.

“Whatever that means to them, they can take that and go with it. So I am going to work and then see what happens.”

Locke has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in two years at Kentucky. He has rushed for 824 yards on 157 carries and scored six touchdowns, including five as a freshman in 2007, and he has 30 career receptions for another 281 yards and one touchdown.

He has explosive speed, as shown by his 67-yard run against Kent State in 2007 and a 68-yard jaunt against Norfolk State last year. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return against Western Kentucky and was among the nation’s top returners when he was injured against Arkansas in UK’s seventh game.

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks says Locke remains “well ahead of schedule” for his return and expects him to be able to participate in preseason workouts next month.

“But the only way we will know for sure is when we get into the grind of two-a-days and he gets hit. Will it have any setbacks at all? At this stage, he’s doing well but there are still a lot of questions,” Brooks said.

“The injury happened early enough (in the season) in the seventh game that he was in position that if he went after rehab well, he could be ready by the first of August. So far, that’s what he has done.”

There was some initial concern that Locke might have to miss the entire 2009 season as he recovered from his torn anterior cruciate ligament. Locke never believed that.

“I have been working so hard for months. My goal is to come back and play. When I first got hurt and was told it could have be a career-ending injury, it had me kind of down,” he admitted. “But at the same time I decided I was not going to let this get me down. If I don’t come back it won’t be because I didn’t put in the effort. That is why my work ethic and everything has changed. I am being more positive.”

Locke knows the true test comes in fall camp when he gets hit. However, he says he’s tired of not playing.

“I do not have any time to waste. I do not want to be redshirted. I sat out half a season last year and it was the worst half season of my life. A whole year (sitting out)? I don’t know if I could do that. I might go crazy,” he said.

Locke thought he could handle about anything until he started rehab. At times, he says he felt like he let the team down by being hurt and not playing. That was hard mentally. But the physical pain came in rehab.

“I have shed a tear before. The first four weeks is the worst. You are just out of surgery, you still have the numbness, you get the blood rush when you stand up. You are in so much pain that you don’t want to move,” Locke said. “But you have to move it.

“Let’s say you have a broken finger and somebody grabs it and they mess with it and you tell them to stop. But when you get to that point with your knee, you can’t stop. You have to push through it or you are not going to get your extension back or get your flexibility back.

“You can’t get your muscle back until you get your flexibility and extension back. Once you get that, then you can build your muscles back.

“That first four weeks will make a man out of you. Honestly, if somebody comes back from a bad injury, I will give them their respect. It is rough. It breaks you down and makes you not want to do it. I didn’t want to do it.

“I hated getting up in the morning knowing I was going to hurt myself. Every time I got done, I was in pain. My trainers did stuff I didn’t want them to do. I hated them for it. I was mad. But at the same time I knew they were doing it for a reason, so I stayed in there and stuck it out.”

Locke said rehab was harder than any hit he ever took on the football field.

“Them hits are nothing compared to rehab. Seriously. It is not for everybody, and hopefully not for me again,” he said.

The injury made have had one unexpected benefit for Locke. It has helped him mature and gain a new perspective on football and life. He says he was “shocked” that he did as well academically as he did last semester when he was going through rehab.

“I went to school. I hated going to one class because I had to go up steps every time, and I hated it. I would get to class and be hurting. Even when I got to where I could bend my leg a little bit, sitting in class was so annoying to my knee. It was hard to pay attention because of the pain,” he said. “It’s just something you have where you have to be strong. I feel like I am a pretty strong guy, so I was able to go through that.”

He was also able to learn to never again take so many routine things for granted.

“Being able to just move, sit down or sleep and do things like that I took for granted. Who cared about that? That is what your leg is supposed to do. When it got took away from me, it was a blow,” he said.

“I was down and out. Why me? I told (running back) Alfonso (Smith), my best friend on the team, that I would never take anything for granted again. Just to be able to sit down and not feel pain is a great feeling. I learned to be thankful for everything I have now, and that has made me a better man.”

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