Mukala Sikyala has not rushed for a single yard since joining the Maryland football team as a walk-on in 1997. Yet he's the second tailback on the depth chart during preseason workouts and is pushing starter LaMont Jordan for his job.
Sikyala, a 5-foot-8, 195-pound junior from Einstein High School, has been sidelined for two years after suffering a knee injury and undergoing two subsequent surgeries. But he's looked sharp in practice this summer, and his quickness, ability to elude tacklers and speed have caught the attention of many.
Coach Ron Vanderlinden, upset when Jordan reported to practice 10 pounds overweight, even hinted at one point that Sikyala might be the starter when the Terrapins open their season Sept. 2 at Temple. While that is not likely -- Jordan is a second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick -- Vanderlinden repeatedly has said Sikyala will get plenty of playing time.
"I'm just glad for the opportunity," Sikyala said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity ever since I injured my knee."
After rushing for more than 1,400 yards as a senior at Einstein in 1995, Sikyala went to Tuskegee. He had played in just two games as a freshman before injuring his knee. Screws were used to anchor a piece of bone that was chipped off. The screws helped the bone heal, but Sikyala's speed was drastically curtailed. He also had severe pain when he extended the knee.
Sikyala, who was born in Zaire, transferred to College Park before the 1997 season. He tried out as a walk-on midway through the season but did not play. Vanderlinden said Sikyala noticeably favored the knee when he ran.
However, a second surgery was performed after the season in order to remove the screws. Sikyala regained much of his speed and caught the coach's eye. Last season, he played on the practice squad and saw action in only one game, against West Virginia in the third contest of the season.
Sikyala said he could feel his speed come back and worked extra hard over the spring and summer to get in shape. He often put in tough workouts at least three times per week this summer because he knew how good Jordan was, but Sikyala also wanted the coaches to notice him.
"Mookie has demonstrated that he can play," Vanderlinden said. "Mookie is a good player, and [when] he's at full speed, just as fast as LaMont. You're going to see a lot of Mookie this season."
Defensive lineman Delbert Cowsette worked with Sikyala over the summer and was stunned by his teammate's work ethic. Cowsette said he'd see Sikyala working hard by himself, doing little things, anything to improve. In fact, Cowsette said he often would join the running back.
"He's a big-time worker," Cowsette said. "He's trying to work for a starting position. He's a terrific player."
Sikyala felt the hard work was vital, both to show he had recovered from the injury and to show that he could play.
"I feel I took it upon myself this summer to train hard and prepare myself as if I was a starter," Sikyala said. "Now I'm more experienced and my speed just went through the roof."
The Terrapins will need him this season. Although Vanderlinden wants to pass more, the running attack should remain the backbone of the Terrapins' offense.
Quarterback Randall Jones said Sikyala is a different type of runner than Jordan, and that will give opposing defenses something else to think about.
"He's really agile and a very strong player," Jones said. "He's a finesse runner and going to give us a different type of back."
In the end, Sikyala is happy just to be getting a chance to step on the field. After a first season filled with injuries, a second year on the sideline and a third year in which he got action in just one game, Sikyala is hungry to play football.
"Sometimes I would doubt myself off the field," Sikyala said. "Now I'm just happy [to play]."