TEMPE, Ariz. — This spring, Arizona State running back Kyle Middlebrooks has turned back the clock.
From reviving his old nickname — Sonic, a name given to him by fellow freshmen in 2010 after the video game hedgehog with blazing speed — right on down to his old haircut, Middlebrooks is sparing no measure as he tries to rediscover his old self.
Now healthy after missing all of 2013 and back at his natural position, Middlebrooks looks to seize his last opportunity at ASU by returning to the form that made him a key weapon early in his Sun Devil career.
"I just needed a change," Middlebrooks said. "It’s my last season, and I felt like when I was a freshman that was my best time here, so I’ve got to go out with a bang."
So far this spring, coaches are seeing a difference, getting a look at the Middlebrooks they never had the chance to coach.
"I think he’s back 100 percent," running backs coach Bo Graham said. "He’s showed some great promise here in the spring. He’s probably had more explosive plays than anybody else so far."
Middlebrooks, who is back at running back after becoming a receiver in 2012, knows being the impact player he was in 2010 will require much more than an old nickname or look. He took the first big step this spring when he shed the knee brace that had held him back as a he recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the final regular season game of the 2012 season.
The knee injury kept Middlebrooks out of spring practice last year and forced him to redshirt the 2013 season. Losing the brace was as much a mental step as it was physical.
"It’s just crazy when you take off that knee brace," Middlebrooks said. "Those first couple days of practice I felt free. I just felt like myself again, I could run, I felt fast."
Said coach Todd Graham: "The first day (of spring practice) I told Bo, ‘Man, he took that brace off and he looks like a different guy.’"
Middlebrooks says taking off the brace has given him full rotation in his knee again. He can cut and change directions comfortably like he hasn’t in quite a while.
With both knees up to speed, the next big hurdle has been the mental preparation. In that regard, Middlebrooks is still progressing.
"When I came in as a freshman, mentally I was really ready," Middlebrooks said. "That’s what I need to get back this year. It’s my senior year. It’s do or die. I’ve just got to be strong and finish strong."
With D.J. Foster returning as ASU’s featured running back and Deantre Lewis returning as the presumed backup, Middlebrooks could be third on the depth chart, though he has stood out more than Lewis this spring. Factor in three highly-touted running back recruits arriving in the fall and the picture gets even murkier.
Bo Graham says Middlebrooks is a player who can spell Foster and work in multiple running back packages but left his role fairly undefined as Middlebrroks continues to prove himself again.
There appears to be more certainty for Middlebrooks in the return game, where he thrived as a freshman in 2010, leading the team in return yards and memorably taking a kickoff 95 yards to the 1-yard line just before halftime against Wisconsin. He had 591 all-purpose yards as a freshman, and 679 as a sophomore.
Middlebrooks might be ASU’s best candidate right now to return kickoffs and punts. He’ll have competition from new recruits in the fall — notably from touted running back De’Chavon "Gump" Hayes — but for now coaches are counting on Middlebrooks as a front line option in the return game.
"He’s established himself in the past as a threat back there," Graham said. "We’ve gone and done a bunch of research in the return game, and as coaches we know the biggest spot to fill in the return game is the guy with the ball. We think in Kyle we have a guy that is dangerous, that people have to respect."
In Todd Graham’s first two seasons as coach, the return game has not been a threat. Rashad Ross’ 100-yard return in 2012 is the only return game touchdown in that span. With Middlebrooks and others, ASU believes it can weaponize the return game in 2014 the way Dennis Erickson did from 2009-2011.
"Back when I was a freshman we just knew in our minds any minute we could take it to the house, and we can get it back to that," Middlebrooks said. "It’s just all about having a collective group together and believing in that."
Middlebrooks’ future within ASU’s offense and special teams will become clearer in the fall, but it’s obvious he is in a better place now than he has been since his freshman season. After enduring a knee injury, a shoulder injury, a position change and plenty of time waiting behind others on the depth chart, Middlebrooks feels like his time has come once again.
"It feels like I’ve been here for 10 years," Middlebrooks joked. "This is five years now and having to redshirt your senior year makes it seem even longer, but you’ve just got to finish strong.
"It’s been a long time, but it’s time to make it worth while."