After watching film of Virginia's 26-21 upset of then-No. 4 Florida State last week, it didn't take North Carolina Coach John Bunting long to make this assessment: Ahmad Brooks is back.
Perhaps overshadowed by Cavaliers quarterback Marques Hagans's remarkable performance against the Seminoles, Brooks returned to the starting lineup for only the second time this season. It was Brooks's first game this season at his natural position, inside linebacker, after missing the first three games while recovering from offseason knee surgery. He also missed the team's 28-17 loss at Boston College on Oct. 8 because of a sprained ankle.
But once on the field at Scott Stadium Saturday night, Brooks was hard to miss in his No. 34 jersey. He leaped two Florida State linemen to rush quarterback Drew Weatherford, ran across the field to level tailback Lorenzo Booker and batted down Weatherford's pass on a key second-and-14 play with about four minutes left in the game.
Brooks not only looked as fast and explosive as he did last season, when he was named all-ACC, all-American and seemed like a can't-miss first-round pick in this coming April's NFL draft, but he also looked bigger.
"I don't want to say I'm back to my old self, but I was feeling pretty good running around," Brooks said. "I felt pretty good out there. I wasn't sure what to expect. But my confidence built up, and I got my wind back."
Brooks, a former All-Met selection from Hylton High School in Woodbridge, admitted being winded in the second half against Florida State. He said he still weighs close to 270 pounds, after ballooning to 275 shortly after his March surgery. Brooks said his mother, Vergie Brooks, moved into a hotel in Charlottesville for several weeks after his surgery to help drive him to class and his rehabilitation.
"The extra weight is just from not doing anything and eating mama's cooking," said Brooks, who is 6-feet-4 and who played last season at about 255 pounds. "I was eating a lot of junk food and put on a lot of weight. I'm 100 percent now, but I'm not as fast as I was before because I'm carrying all that extra weight."
Virginia Coach Al Groh said Brooks is still "quite a bit away from being either what he was in the past or what we projected him to be at this point in this particular season.
"But each day is bringing him closer to that," said Groh, whose No. 23 Cavaliers play North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Groh and Brooks's parents -- his father, Perry Brooks, played defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins from 1977 to 1985 -- did not say much about the player's injury while he stood idle during the first month of the season. There still seems to be confusion about how Brooks was hurt and what he actually injured -- Virginia officials said he had surgery to regenerate bone growth in his right knee; Brooks said a cyst was removed from behind his knee.
Because Brooks was away for so long, some Virginia fans wondered if he would play at all this season, or if he was working hard enough to get back on the field.
"When you have a knee injury, that's one of the worst injuries you can have," Brooks said. "I was nervous about coming back. I still believed I could do some of the things I've done in the past, but I was coming off a knee injury and was a little timid. I wanted to make sure I was ready. I've been out of this game for eight months."
Because Brooks has been restricted during much of the first two months of the season, Groh said his conditioning and stamina are more of a concern than his weight.
Brooks, one of three finalists last season for the Butkus Award as college football's best linebacker, said missing four of the Cavaliers' first five games probably won't affect his decision as to whether to return to Virginia for his senior season or enter April's NFL draft as a junior. Most NFL draft analysts dropped Brooks out of the first round before the Florida State game, after he was considered a possible top-10 selection before he was hurt.
Brooks believes the Cavaliers' five remaining regular season games and a possible bowl game are enough time to impress NFL scouts. "We've got what, five games left?" he said. "That's enough time."