VERO BEACH — A year ago A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin were roommates here in the preseason, receivers who shared the common bond of major injuries that would ultimately keep them from playing a single snap last season.
Love, a sixth-year senior, is 16 months removed from his second torn ACL, sustained late in USF's spring football game, and it has been 13 months since Griffin dislocated his ankle and broke the end of his fibula during summer voluntary workouts. Their return, with optimism about getting to their old, healthy selves, carries the combination of veteran experience and playmaking talent the Bulls needed last season.
"It's a blessing," Love said after practice, having fully recovered and gained confidence in his surgically repaired right knee. "To be back out here after everything I went through, just having another opportunity to play the game. I'm back … a lot older, a lot wiser."
Two years ago when Love was recovering from his first ACL tear, he was Griffin's big brother in a mentoring program for USF athletes. And last fall when Griffin was facing a long rehab, he again could turn to Love for reassurance that a full recovery was possible.
"I'd never really been hurt before," Griffin said. "A.J. had been through it and he pushed me to work harder, looking at him, seeing him in the training room four times a day, getting treatment, doing rehab. A.J.'s mind-set was, 'I've got to get back out there, whatever my team needs.'
"This summer, A.J. would text me, 'We're running routes at 11:30.' He's always out there, always working on his craft. If it's raining, he's in the weight room. He's just pushing the unit, being the veteran leader we have on the receiving corps. We follow his lead."
Without Love or Griffin last fall and having lost would-be senior Carlton Mitchell to the NFL draft, USF struggled at receiver, cobbling together a group of converted quarterbacks (Evan Landi) and running backs (Lindsey Lamar, Joel Miller) and defensive backs (Terrence Mitchell). Coach Skip Holtz called the group "the island of misfit toys," but this week he acknowledged that the position might be the biggest area of improvement.
"To see them endure their injuries, then to come back and work so hard in the summer, it's good to have them back," said Landi, who had 27 catches last year.
Love and Griffin might be starters leading that group, and they've shown a knack for stepping up in key moments. Griffin's biggest catch as a true freshman was a 73-yard high-stepping touchdown in a win at Florida State. Love, with 65 career catches for 970 yards, has had three touchdown catches in bowl games, as well as in high-profile games against Kansas, West Virginia and Miami.
Now they get to return to the field together, in another huge game when USF opens its season Sept. 3 at Notre Dame. They have helped each other finish difficult recoveries, and receivers coach Phil McGeoghan thinks there was a greater purpose to their close bond.
"They were going through the same thing at the same time," McGeoghan said. "A.J. was Sterling's older brother in our big brother program his freshman year. I think everything in life happens for a reason. There's a purpose for everything. I think that was for a reason."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.