RALEIGH (AP) — M.J. Salahuddin was perfectly positioned to earn a leading role on North Carolina State’s defense when a knee injury knocked him out for the season. He’s ready to try again.
When training camp starts, the 6-foot-2 redshirt junior will be nearly a year removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and damaged meniscus in his left knee. The challenge will be to beat out players who got more snaps in his absence, or at least prove he’s healthy enough to make an impact expected a year earlier.
“It’s just a learning experience all over again because this is new for me,” Salahuddin said. “That’s basically the bar I’m holding up to myself, competing against my teammates and other linebackers. So far, I’ve been pretty good with that.”
Salahuddin’s return can only help the Wolfpack’s defense, which ranked 13th in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (27 points per game) and 10th in total defense (373.1 yards).
The way coach Dave Doeren sees it, either Salahuddin returns to pre-injury form and develops into a starter, or other linebackers improve their games to hold off Salahuddin and keep their jobs.
“We’ll just have to see how it plays out,” Doeren said. “In a perfect world, we’ll have the same guy back only stronger because he’s been in the weight room for nine months and hungrier because he appreciates the game more because he lost it.”
Salahuddin, an instate recruit from Fayetteville, arrived in Tom O’Brien’s final season as coach and played primarily on special teams as a true freshman. He earned a bigger role in Doeren’s first season, starting five games at weakside linebacker with a career-best nine tackles against then-No. 3 Clemson.
He moved to the middle in N.C. State’s 4-2-5 scheme for preseason drills last year. And Dave Huxtable, the Wolfpack’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, said Salahuddin was performing well and showing leadership before everything changed on a routine play.
Salahuddin was taking on a block from a fullback when he felt a pop in his left knee as he planted his foot. He hadn’t faced a serious injury before, but knew immediately this one was bad.
He had surgery Aug. 28 and watched as the Wolfpack bounced back from the program’s first winless ACC record in a half-century to win eight games with a late-season surge that included a road rout of rival North Carolina and a bowl victory.
“It’s just destiny, I believe,” he said of the injury. “I had a lot of time to just sit back and say, ‘Why me?’ … I guess this was just my perseverance stage. It was my mental test.”
Salahuddin was cleared for limited work in the spring. He also watched film and tried to help the other linebackers, including redshirt sophomore Jerod Fernandez — the team’s No. 2 tackler with nine starts in the middle in Salahuddin’s projected spot — and sophomore Airius Moore, who stared four games and was listed as the weakside starter in the spring.
Huxtable said Salahuddin will open preseason camp at middle linebacker but can be “a swing guy” between both spots.
“The last thing I want to see M.J. do is put a lot of pressure on himself to go out on the field and think the first day coming back that he’s got to perform at the level he was playing at before he got hurt,” Huxtable said.
“Him and I will sit down and talk about that. I’m just excited to get him back in the room, on the grass with us and have him be a part of the team from a playing standpoint.”
Salahuddin can’t wait, even if he knows it might take some time to get to full speed.
“Yeah, but I don’t accept it,” he said. “For that first play, I expect there to be a little bit of rust, but after that, it’s just all effort. … I’m not going to make excuses, either. I’ve been there before, so I have to act like it.”