A year ago, their promising football seasons came to a crashing conclusion.
Knee injuries of the worst kind. With the initials that spell the most dire diagnosis: ACL.
Now, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes of UCLA, by way of Placer High School, and linebacker Cam Smith of USC and Granite Bay are back in play. Young bodies, strong limbs and an offseason in the weight room put the defensive stalwarts on the fast track to return.
Their torn anterior cruciate ligaments have healed, and the Pacific-12 Conference championship hopes of the Bruins and Trojans rest on their defenses, their leaders in particular.
Vanderdoes, a redshirt junior, and Smith, a sophomore, sat out spring drills. Both have been active in training camp, wearing knee braces they hope to ditch Sept. 3, when the season starts.
“It’s just great to be back,” Vanderdoes said after a recent practice. “Nothing worse than sitting and watching.”
Said Smith: “I feel great. I have zero pain.”
Vanderdoes was injured in a victory over Virginia in the 2015 season opener. He jumped to block a pass, landing awkwardly. Vanderdoes said he heard a “super loud” pop in his left knee. He remained in the game – adrenaline overriding pain – and refused to believe it was serious.
Later in the game, Vanderdoes’ knee gave way when he tried to hoist a teammate, nose tackle Kenny Clark, during a touchdown celebration. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Vanderdoes went down. He watched helplessly as opposing offenses stampeded through the line the rest of the season.
“It was like, there’s no way (the season) is over,” Vanderdoes recalled thinking. “But it was like, ‘Whoa, it’s over.’ Just like that. It killed me not to play. I’ve worked hard to get back. I’m ready.”
So is Smith. He impressed his USC coaches in the weight room and in spring drills shortly after arriving as a mid-year entry in 2015 and quickly emerged as a starter and leader.
The 6-2, 245-pound Smith was on pace to become the first true freshman to lead USC in tackles, but his season ended in the 10th game, his left knee buckling in a win against Colorado. Smith still earned Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors. He had 12 tackles against Stanford, 12 against Washington and 11 against Notre Dame. He had three interceptions against Utah.
“(The coaches) don’t want me to go out there and let loose (in practice),” Smith said. “Get me back in slowly and soon, I’ll be going all the time.”
Holding Smith back is no easy task.
“It’s like caging a damn lion,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “I appreciate Cam because, one, of his competitiveness and wanting to be out there. But, two, I really appreciate how he’s handling listening to the doctors and doing exactly what they say.”
The Trojans won the Pac-12 South before falling to Stanford in the conference title game and Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. USC, which finished 8-6, lost three of its final four games without Smith.
UCLA opened last season 4-0 before injuries thinned the defense. The Bruins finished 8-5, concluding with a 37-29 loss to Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl. Vanderdoes winced as the Cornhuskers bullied the Bruins for 326 rushing yards.
Vanderdoes also started as a freshman in 2013. He had his best game against Stanford, making 11 tackles, the most by a UCLA lineman since 1992. Vanderdoes is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards as well as the Outland Trophy.
On Sept. 3, UCLA opens the season at Texas A&M while USC plays defending national champion Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Vanderdoes and Smith expect to be in their respective teams’ starting lineup.
And both expect to play for quite a few years. Smith already is on the NFL draft radar. Vanderdoes could return to UCLA in 2017 or enter the NFL draft next spring, though he said he hasn’t considered it.
The Bruins’ coaching staff has.
“I don’t think it will matter, quite frankly,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “I think if (Vanderdoes) has a good year this year, we’ll be saying goodbye to him.”