Injured in the Ole Miss game last season, Etheridge wore a halo for several months before finally being able to get back to physical workouts just a few months ago.
Healing quickly and now recovered enough to be cleared by physicians, Etheridge will have the opportunity to move back into the starting rotation heading into his senior year.
Asked if he had a good feeling going to Birmingham for tests on Tuesday that would determine if he was going to be cleared to play this year, Etheridge said, "I actually did. I have been loooking forward, counting down the days because I felt very good about what the doctor was going to say today. Obviously, it turned out great."
Etheridge has been able to work out extensively on campus this summer and his teammates say he has looked good doing it. Asked if he feels good about how the sessions have been going, Etheridge said, "Definitely, just going out there working, putting in extra time trying to get myself ready for this day was the main thing. Just going out there with my teammates is the most exciting part about it."
On Tuesday he did physical tests and was X-Rayed and given an MRI. Etheridge noted that he was told his back/spine/neck look normal and that there is a two percent higher risk to play football than pre-injury. The senior said he has no doubts about playing again. "I feel very good about it," he noted.
He also said he has received great support from his family. "I have gotten a great vibe from my family. They have been behind 100 percent. It has been great."
Etheridge said the support from his teammates, coaches and Auburn fans in general has been excellent, too.
Before the injury Etheridge was having another huge year for the Tigers out of the secondary. In nine games he had 52 tackles with three and a half tackles for losses. The neck injury suffered against Ole Miss ended a streak of 33 consecutive starts for the Troy native as he missed the rest of the season and spring practice.
Etheridge is shown in his neck brace after the injury.
In his first two seasons of play following a redshirt year Etheridge was one of Auburn's most consistent defensive players. Starting 24 games he made 140 tackles and added an interception. Heading into his fifth year he has 192 total tackles, has forced four fumbles, and broken up 10 passes.
With Etheridge's return as well as the return of fellow seniors Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil, the Tigers have a veteran unit back with senior Demond Washington and junior Neiko Thorpe at the cornerback positions.
Etheridge said he doesn't know of any reason why he won't be ready to play in the season opener vs. Arkansas State although he realizes he will have to be careful in how he gets back into the physical aspect of the game. He said he is ready to do "whatever the medical staff has planned."
Etheridge added, "It is a slow process. You just can't go out there and go to hitting everybody, which I would love to do. They have a plan I have to follow by and get myself ready for the season."
Etheridge is known as a physical player and he said he won't back off from that style of play. "If somebody comes across the middle, I will go take him, no hesitation at all."
Etheridge, who is close friends with fellow senior defensive back Aairon Savage, noted that Savage has been very supportive through his recovery, which included wearing a halo brace for three to four months and several more months dealing with a neck/back brace.
"He had been through the (rehab) process before I did and he helped me get through it a lot just motivating me and stuff all day. All last week, he was saying you know you are going to get the clearance."
Savage, who will be a sixth-year senior, has missed the last two seasons with injuries but is ready to play for 2010.
Etheridge has been a major contributor since arriving at Auburn from Charles Henderson High in Troy.
Etheridge joked that he has a group of guys he plans to hit when the pads go on. "I have started a list of everybody who was messing with me," he said. "They all know what number they are at. T-Zach (wide receiver Terrell Zachery) just moved in with us and he is number one right now."
Etheridge said that Quindarius Carr has moved up to number two on the list, passing Kodi Burns. "I am looking forward to hitting those two guys," said Etheridge, who noted the receivers have been giving him grief in summer voluntary workouts.
Etheridge's father, Donald Kelly, said he will be a little nervous when Zac hits the field again, but said he is fully supportive of his son's decision to play football again and believes everything will work out fine.
"He loves football and what happened could have happened to anyone," Kelly said. "God has blessed him to put it back together."
Kelly said when his son was on the field motionless being prepared to be taken to the hospital it was "very, very hard" on him. "It was something that I, a parent, had never faced," he pointed out.
Etheridge's father said that his son's hard work has helped the rehab go well and there was no doubt that the safety was going to play football again if given the green light by the doctors.
Kelly added that he appreciates the support his son has received at Auburn from the coaches, his teammates and fans. "I didn't go to school at Auburn, but I have always been a War Eagle fan. I didn't go to school here, but I am definitely one of them. I?am proud of him and I am proud of everybody."