The depth chart had a different look to it. After 16 months of rehab, Powell looked at the depth chart and saw his name on it for the first time since his injury. For so long, he took it for granted. The redshirt junior knew his name would be on the list when he was healthy, but after walking into the room and not seeing it there during the rehab, the beginning of fall camp had a special meaning.
“You learn to find value in things you may not have valued before,” Ronald Powell said. “When your name is not up there -- that was something that I had to really realize. Man, I appreciate when my name is up there.
“All those years you’ve been playing the game, you never expected it to be taken away. At that very moment (of the injury), it was taken away. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.”
He watched from the sideline last year, envious of his teammates celebrating after a big play. The original plan was for Powell to return for the LSU game in early October 2012. That was the goal he set and worked towards it every day. When the second tear occurred during his rehab in the fall, he backed off a target return date.
Powell says he didn’t even think of what this Saturday would be like. He didn't want to get ahead of himself. Instead of letting thoughts of running out of the tunnel against Toledo drive him to get back to normal, the 6-4, 234-pound linebacker slowed the process down. He attacked his rehab every day with a smile on his face, not wanting to rush things.
“I kind of tried to stay away from thinking about this upcoming season and just focused on being ready to go out and play at some point,” Powell said. “I’m embracing being able to go out there again.”
Even his teammates are starting to get excited.
When Powell had the original surgery done, he didn’t disappear from the football facility. He spent as much time as necessary with the training staff to go through his daily rehab, but when that was over each day, he made his way to the film room to help his teammates study and learn. He also wanted to make sure he was up to date on the defense for when he was finally healthy.
That film room is where defensive lineman Dante Fowler and Powell started their relationship. Powell saw a lot of himself in Fowler, a high school All-American pass rusher with loads of athleticism. The two worked together on film study and technique, also starting the mentoring process off the field.
They’ll have the opportunity to line up on the field together for the first time this Saturday.
“Some people just go home after their surgery,” Fowler said of Powell’s rehab. “He was still in film, wanting to learn how to get better. He was talking in the film room like he was actually in the game. I’m really excited to see him play. I can’t wait.”
The respect for Powell grew throughout the entire team -- even to the other side of the ball. Powell stayed close with his teammates in the locker room and was around the team just as much as he was before the injury, taking pride in becoming the team's biggest cheerleader on the way to a BCS berth in 2012.
“He was always positive about it,” Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He never got down. He never showed that he was going to give up. He was always in the training room. He always had a positive attitude. That was huge for us.”
For Powell, there will always be a sense of what might’ve been if he was able to play at some point last year. He wanted to be healthy and have the chance to play with his classmates, knowing that it wasn’t likely that would happen in 2013. Safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and defensive tackle Dominique Easley joined Powell in the same recruiting class, vowing as high school seniors to get Florida back to the top of college football.
The Gators went a long way into making that happen last fall.
However, Elam and Floyd decided to leave early and start their NFL careers. Easley, led by his desire to get his degree, decided to return. Powell will to line up next to Easley in some defensive packages this fall, but he’ll always wonder what it would’ve been like to play on the 2012 team with the rest of the 2010 recruiting class.
“I would've loved Matt and Sharrif to comeback so I could play with those guys again because I feel like I missed out,” Powell said. “Those guys are like brothers to me, so just for my own selfish wants, I would've loved to go out there with them again. It means a lot to have a guy like Easley that I feel like that about to comeback with me and share this experience with me."
Now fully healthy, Powell is expected to be a key factor in a much improved pass rush. He led the Gators with six sacks during the 2011 season, and the coaches saw important strides during the 2012 spring before his first ACL injury.
The emergence of sophomores Jonathan Bullard and Fowler will help the Gators off the edge, and with Powell lined up at SAM linebacker, the Gators will get their three best pass rushers on the field at the same time.
If practice is any indication, Powell is excited to see how effective the group can be on Saturdays.
“Very high expectations,” Powell said. “We know we’re very talented. As a group, the sky is the limit for us. I don’t see anybody being better than us.”