Gophers' Stoudermire relishes final chance

During rare moments of free time, Troy Stoudermire thinks about all he has been through at Minnesota.

He set the team single-season record for kick return yards as a true freshman ... he moved from cornerback to wide receiver midway through the season ... he caught 26 passes for 306 yards as a sophomore ... he switched back to cornerback for his junior year ... he was suspended in September of his junior year and posted on Facebook that he wanted to transfer before deciding to stay days later ... he set team's career kick return yards record later that year ... he emerged as a playmaker the following spring for a new coaching staff ... he set the Big Ten career kick return yards record in the 2011 opener ... he started the first four games at cornerback before suffering a broken bone in his forearm that ended his season ... he waited to hear if his college career was over.

"I've definitely thought about it," Stoudermire recently told ESPN.com, "but I try to leave that in the past and just look at the future."

The time for reflection hasn't come for Stoudermire. It could have, if Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel had different news when he called Stoudermire on a Friday in January.

Stoudermire had applied to the Big Ten for a medical hardship waiver for 2011, which would give him one more season of eligibility. Applications for hardship waivers or sixth years of eligibility can go either way. Stoudermire's teammate Kim Royston got good news last January, while Purdue wide receiver Keith Smith was denied a sixth year. It's a crap shoot.

"I was very anxious," Stoudermire said. "I was actually in Dallas at home with my mom, just waiting for the call, waiting for my coach to let me know something. I was calling him every week to see what the status was. He was telling me they hadn't gotten back to him."

Stoudermire initially had been optimistic about his request, but he began to wonder whether he had played too many games in the 2011 season to qualify. He called Royston, who told him to be patient.

The call finally came Jan. 13, and with it, relief.

"I had nothing to say," Stoudermire said. "I was just super excited."

Stoudermire said the good news has helped him relax and focus more on school and football. He has never felt healthier during his college career, which can be traced in part to the long layoff he had last season.

When Minnesota opens spring practice March 22, Stoudermire will lead the secondary.

"It's a blessing to get another chance to come back and play another year," he said. "Coming back this year is real big. I know the defense, I had a full spring and a few games to play at corner, and when I come back this year, I should be better."

Stoudermire stood out during spring practice in 2011, especially because of the big hits he delivered. Minnesota practiced at a frenzied pace, using two sets of offensive players against the defense to run as many plays as possible. Stoudermire embraced the accelerated practices, and when the games began in the fall, he felt the pace was actually slower.

Stoudermire started strong, recording 24 tackles, two interceptions, three tackles for loss and three pass breakups in the first four games. But then the injury surfaced in a loss to North Dakota State, and Minnesota struggled without him, finishing 11th in the league in pass-efficiency defense (148.8) and recording a league-low four interceptions.

In fact, Stoudermire's interceptions total led the team as only two others recorded picks.

Royston was one of few bright spots on defense, making the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. Minnesota needs Stoudermire to take a similar path in 2012 and lead an unproven group of defensive backs.

Stoudermire welcomes the role, helping his teammates during captains' practices and winter workouts.

"All the guys look up to me and call me," he said. "I let them know everything on the field. I set up meetings. I'm definitely taking that leader role, and I'm proud to say I'm the leader of the DBs right now."

Not a bad title to add to a unique career.