Entering last season as a starting linebacker for the first time, junior Shelly Lyons suffered a broken foot Oct. 23 at Cal, abruptly ending his season.
Back on the field this spring for the first time in five months, Lyons is taking a careful approach as he returns to action.
"It's feeling good," Lyons said. "It's a little sore. It's time to get back to as close to 100 percent as I can. It's pretty good, good enough to run around on."
Unable to put pressure on his left foot, Lyons rode around practices on a knee scooter as he watched his team from the sidelines for nearly two months last season. His rehab started with an extensive amount of leg stretches, progressing towards leg press and leg lifts. Once he was able to put weight on his foot, he moved on to more demanding plyometric and aquatic exercises.
Despite the efforts in the winter, Lyons isn't sure when he'll completely return to his old form.
"I don't know if I'll ever get to 100 percent," he said. "Hopefully I can, but as long as I can run to the ball and play my speed, which is fast, I'll be all right. It's sore, but I'm going to have to learn to fight through pain. It's football."
As Lyons attempts to gain his game speed back, his biggest challenge may be overcoming fatigue. Not in the physical shape he wants to be at this point, he said he still has plenty of time to get there. But it's how the fatigue affects him that he's trying to resolve.
"I get tired out there in the game, and I start losing myself mentally," he said. "I would have an assignment error. You can't have those. I'm going to get tired, it's going to happen. I just have to work on focusing while I was tired and finishing the game like I started it."
Lyons's inconsistent play led to a cutback in snaps as last season wore on. Off to the best start in his career, Lyons accumulated three or more tackles in his first three games. Following assignment breakdowns during a three game losing streak against Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State, Lyons found himself sharing first team reps with linebackers Colin Parker and Oliver Aaron. After a disappointing performance against Oregon State, Lyons turned in one of his best games last season in a win at Washington with five total tackles.
The Sun Devils found themselves back in the losing column the following week in Berkeley. As if the 33-point rout wasn't bad enough, Lyons broke his foot in the game, ending any chance to bounce completely back from his slump.
Lyons' potential has once again landed him atop the depth chart this spring, but a talented group of linebackers has Lyons looking over his shoulder.
"It's really no room for error because if you mess up, someone can take your spot real quick," Lyons said. "I'm just trying to hold on to it right now. And it's good to have those guys behind me too. If I get tired, I know someone can come in and do the job as well I can. It's good to have some depth like that."
Working with the first group, Lyons has been reunited with long-time friends and roommates Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Magee.
The trio played together at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., a pipeline for ASU, and Lyons views Burfict and Magee as his brothers. He feels their chemistry off the field helps bring the most out of each other on the gridiron.
"I know those guys and they me, how we like to play," he said. "Vontaze is really aggressive. Brandon likes to talk a lot of trash. It's pretty funny. He gets us hyped up. Playing with them is definitely a positive."
Lyons and Magee are now seniors, and with Burfict eligible to turn pro after next season, this could be the last time they play together. Although the Sun Devils haven't reached a bowl game during his three-year career, Lyons' has his sights set high.
"Pac-12 (championship) or bust.," he said. "We feel we have the experience, talent and depth to win a Pac-12 championship. Personally I feel if we don't, it's Pac-12 or bust."