TALLAHASSEE — Florida State receiver Taiwan Easterling never heard an ominous pop.
Not that he needed a sound effect to know that the pain searing through his left Achilles' tendon in the middle of an offseason conditioning drill signaled something bad.
"I was trying to make myself cry, but I was like, 'Nah.' I couldn't," he said Sunday during FSU's media day. "That's how much it hurt."
He had surgery in late February to repair the ruptured tissue that connects the calf muscles to the heel and was given little hope of returning for the Seminoles' ballyhooed opener against ACC rival Miami on Labor Day.
But Easterling has defied the prognosis and seems headed for a return by that Sept. 7 game to help shore up the offense's biggest question mark.
"He has looked good," coach Bobby Bowden said after his team completed the second day of training camp. "Every time I look at him, he does something good. I'm just happy more than surprised. … I can't tell any difference in him."
In the winter, Easterling was focused on improving on what had been a breakout season as a redshirt freshman. He had 30 catches for 322 yards (both third on the team behind Preston Parker and Greg Carr) and one touchdown.
But those numbers told only part of the story. Nine of Easterling's catches converted a third-down play.
"He was probably the most dependable receiver we had last year," redshirt junior quarterback Christian Ponder said. "He runs great routes, has great hands. A lot of the third down and longs, he made a play. I'm glad he's back, and I'm looking for him to do that (again). And more."
Carr graduated, Parker was dismissed from the team in February, and Corey Surrency had his appeal for an extra year of eligibility denied by the NCAA in April. That trio combined for 91 catches for 1,151 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. As a team, FSU had 211 catches for 2,506 yards and 18 touchdowns. Take Easterling out of the rotation, even for a while, and the math looks even more challenging.
"I feel real comfortable out there," he said, adding he's nearly 100 percent. "I get a little winded, that's it. Other than that, everything's there."
Perhaps more is there than before.
Easterling worked on his upper body while he was recovering, and the rehabilitation, which included running in a pool and on a treadmill a few months after surgery, has made his lower body stronger.
The 5-foot-11 Easterling, up to 195 pounds from 186 last year, feels faster.
And he feels more confident. He was a quarterback for his first three years in high school in Mississippi and played receiver only as a senior.
Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, hired in January 2007, wasn't sure Easterling would be on offense; he figured he might be a defensive back.
"I played there a couple plays in high school," said Easterling, 20, flashing a sly grin. "When I did, I got an interception."
But then, the guy who dazzled folks with an acrobatic touchdown in a 30-20 win against Virginia Tech has always been able to go up and make a play on the ball. Any ball, really.
As a senior outfielder, he led his team to a state baseball title and was drafted in the sixth round by the Marlins. But he opted for football and a college education, although he hasn't ruled out playing baseball.
"It's just the small things I'm learning (about receiver)," he said. "I'm getting there."
"He's got confidence," receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey said. "He believes in himself, and he believes if he gets the opportunity, he can go out and play with anybody. That's what he's thriving on, that, 'Hey, I'm going to go out and prove I can get the job done.' … We're so pleased with his attitude and the way he's working so hard to be back and be better than anybody."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.