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Ask Matt Campbell what he likes about Vladimir Emilien and his response is somewhat unexpected.
The University of Toledo's football coach doesn't immediately bring up Emilien's versatility -- strong enough to stop the run, quick enough to defend the pass -- or that he has experience in a BCS program. Or, that three years ago, Emilien was one of the most sought after safeties in the country and at the center of a recruiting battle Michigan won over Ohio State.
Campbell's quick response is about Emilien's smile.
"You love to come to work every day because he's a kid that always has a smile on his face," Campbell said Monday.
Smiling? Emilien? No one could criticize him if he had a jaded point of view about football. This is not the spot the four-star prospect from Florida expected to be entering his fourth year of college. Not playing for UT. Not moving to linebacker. Not answering questions about two injured knees, a failed attempt at convincing the NCAA to make him eligible in 2011, and an impending meeting against his former head coach.
But that's the reality Emilien faces this spring, as he sits atop the depth chart at star linebacker. And he faces it with a smile.
"I feel like right now is a new start," he said, "and hopefully this is going to be my breakout season."
He's due for a reversal of luck. Emilien's misfortunes date back to Plantation High School near Miami where he suffered an ACL tear that destroyed his senior year. Although he won't admit it, the injury hindered his development in college. He played five games as a freshman, recording one tackle, before injuring his other knee the following spring. He departed Michigan a few days after a win over Connecticut in the 2010 season opener.
"Personal reasons. Family problems," Emilien said. "Just a touchy subject."
He effectively wasted his sophomore campaign when the NCAA rejected his appeal to use that season as his sit-out year. Instead, he was rendered to the sidelines the remainder of the 2010 season and all of last year. He has two seasons of eligibility left.
"I think in life you can go one way or another with adversity," Campbell said, "and he's a guy that's fought through it all."
As for his surgically repaired knee, Emilien (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) said he's stronger than when he left Michigan and "just has to wait and see for the first game."
About that first game. UT will travel to play Arizona and new coach Rich Rodriguez on Sept. 1, pitting Emilien against his coach at Michigan. It will have been 727 days since Emilien played in the Connecticut game. Rodriguez called Emilien a "good young man" when he transferred.
"That's going to be an emotional game for me," Emilien said, exhaling and nodding to hammer his point. "I'm going to be playing with a lot of emotions because I'm playing against my old coach."
Some of those emotions might be accompanied by a smile.
SHORT YARDS: Sophomore Cheatham Norrils, a St. John's Jesuit product, is once again bouncing back and forth between cornerback and safety. Depth at cornerback is a concern, perhaps opening a door for Norrils to get solid playing time. He began last season at cornerback before switching to safety. ... Among the players Campbell was impressed with in Friday's 150-play closed-door scrimmage were quarterbacks Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin, receiver Bernard Reedy, and safety Jermaine Robinson. Of younger, less experienced guys, Campbell extolled running back Cassius McDowell, linebacker Ray Bush, and safety Noah Key. ... Cornerback Jordan Haden suffered a minor undisclosed injury in the scrimmage. All-MAC defensive end T.J. Fatinikun's participation this spring is on and off as he recovers from an elbow dislocation.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.