LEXINGTON, Ky. --- One of the most encouraging sights in the first two weeks of Kentucky's spring practice has been the image of Jeremy Caudill peeling himself off a ball carrier, popping back up, and going full speed for one series of plays after another.
It's a far cry from the 2001 season when back problems forced Caudill to miss the first two games and limited him to a reserve role in the final nine. His football future appeared to be in doubt at one point, but those concerns have now been lifted -- along with his spirits.
"I finally feel really good," said Caudill, a junior defensive tackle from Prestonsburg, Ky. "I think I'm over this back thing. I worked on it hard this off season and didn't have any problems at all. It's just great to feel this good again."
Last summer, Caudill experienced chipping on both sides of a lower vertebrae, making basic movement and even sleep --- let alone rigorous football workouts --- difficult on "good" days and nearly unbearable on others.
He went through weeks of exercises with UK's training staff in an attempt to reduce the pain, had discussions with more doctors than he can recall, and eventually made a trip to a back specialist in Atlanta. The prognosis was that only rest and good fortune could fix his problem.
"They told me it's something 90 percent of all offensive and defensive linemen probably have, even if it hasn't flared up on them and caused them a lot of pain," said Caudill, who paid particularly close attention to every minor detail of his case due to his plans to enter medical school. "In my case, it was a little rare because it offset my hip a little bit. It caused me a lot of problems."
Caudill, who arrived at UK in 2000 as a Parade All-American and one of the nation's most sought-after defensive tackles, saw his production from from 20 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in a promising freshman campaign to only 11 tackles and no sacks last year.
To compound the problem, fellow defensive tackles Dewayne Robertson and Ellery Moore also had their battles with injuries, thinning what was once the deepest defensive tackle rotation UK had featured in years.
"Sitting over there on the sidelines the first two or three games was depressing," Caudill said. "Our guys were busting their butts, but just couldn't get over the hump. I felt like I could have made a difference if I was healthy. I know I could have if my back didn't pop up on me."
This spring has found an enthusiastic Caudill ready to do his part to give the Wildcats a formidable front line.
"I'm still trying to get back in the rhythm of things on the field," he said. "I'm pushing myself pretty hard to get my spot back."
Kentucky lists both Caudill and Moore bracketed at No. 1 on the depth chart opposite Robertson. If they have all three healthy, it could be one of the better trios in the Southeastern Conference.
"We're all pushing each other," Caudill said. "All three of us want to start, but we know somebody will be coming off the bench. That just makes us better, though, because we're all trying to be the best man, and we all know we're going to play a lot anyway because that's a spot that gets rotated quite a bit.
"But, naturally, you want to be the guy who runs out there when the defensive starters are announced and hear the crowd going nuts. That really gets you pumped up."
Trying to pick starters is a nice "problem" for defensive coordinator John Goodner and defensive tackles coach Tom Adams to face, especially if Caudill plays to his enormous potential.
"Jeremy looks good," Goodner said. "He's moving real well, and he looks to me like he's going to be a real big key for us if he stays healthy. We need Jeremy to be a force for us inside."
"It makes a world of difference having Jeremy in there," Adams said. "We weren't the same in there last year with all those back problems he had. He gives us another big man in there who's probably as strong as anybody in the league."
Adams is working with Caudill to take better advantage of his size, strength and speed. At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, he's one of the strongest players on the team, benching almost 450 pounds and squatting in excess of 700 prior to his back injury. He also runs in the 4.9 range in the 40-yard dash.
"We've got to get him more productive. We've got to get more tackles and sacks out of him," Adams said. "He should be making five or six tackles a game. The kid's got all the physical tools. Now we just need to get him making more plays."
"I feel like my strength is back better than ever," Caudill said. "I've been working on technique stuff more than anything, where to put your hands, and how to move. Coach Adams is really pushing me hard to be a better player."