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Eight months in: Austin Corbett is getting closer

Austin Corbett

Panthers right guard Austin Corbett suffered a torn left ACL on Jan. 8 in the regular season finale against the Saints. He has agreed to take us inside the rehab process, explaining his perspective on what coming back from the injury entails from a physical and an emotional standpoint and what the months of work to return actually look like as they're happening. This is his story, as it unfolds.

CHARLOTTE — Panthers right guard Austin Corbett got down in his stance Friday morning. The ball was snapped. He drove his opponent back 7 yards and popped up to reset for the next play.

The opponent, however, was not a Falcons defensive lineman or even a teammate in practice.

It was a low-slung weight sled with four 45-pound plates stacked on it, and his assignment for Friday was to push that 180 pounds (plus the weight of the sled) 60 times in short bursts — roughly the number of snaps an offense might play in an NFL game — as he works to build his endurance in preparation for a return to a field.

"Feel like football?" he's asked after the workout.

"No. But I am very tired," he replied, dripping with sweat but smiling.

"It's this weird combo now. My body's exhausted. I've forgotten how to move. But too, OK, we're actually making progress. This feels good."

Austin Corbett

Corbett has entered the so-close-you-can-see it phase of his recovery from January's torn ACL. It's not quite back to a full football workload, but it's football-adjacent, and he's doing a number of things that are almost like what he'd be doing on a regular day of practice. Not quite. But almost.

He's making remarkable progress at every turn, but as he's learned all too well in his recovery from this injury, there is no skipping a step. Recovery from a traumatic injury like his — and even though ACLs are part of the football vocabulary, it may seem routine, but when a doctor uses a sharp knife to slice into your knee and fix it, it's not — is all about the small steps.

Later, it became the Biodex, which is a diagnostic computer attached to a leg extension machine, which provided the data to show his strength progression, and to quantify how far he had come and how far he still had to go.

But now, finally, he gets to do his work against football things (like that sled he's gotten to know so well) and football people.

It's not quite football players yet. But definitely football people.

Ryan Bellerose, Austin Corbett

When Corbett started doing these almost-football drills, he got to lean into a blocking dummy held by sports science coordinator Ryan Bellerose, who goes 5-foot-9-ish and 195 pounds on a good day. Now, he's moved up in weight class.

Assistant strength and conditioning coach Corey Miller is a different challenge. A former University of Tennessee defensive end who once had 4.5 sacks in a game against Kentucky, Miller is in the 6-4, 290 range (and can still hit a sprinting speed of 19.0 miles per hour, which he'll proudly tell you). It's not like he's coming off a snap and trying to move Corbett around, but it's different when you're leaning into a person the equivalent size of the people you'll be leaning into when you're activated.

"Fortunately, Corey is a mountain of a man," Corbett said. "He can hold his own in there just fine. I keep telling everybody around here we need to give him a tryout because he's 6-4 and almost 300 pounds and just jacked.

"Corey can definitely anchor in there."

And while Bellerose doesn't present the same resistance, Corbett found a football application for that, too.

"So every now and then, you've got to have Bellerose come up here, right?" Corbett joked. "Because they're going to bring their nickel pressures sometimes."

Miller laughed and said he appreciated Corbett's endorsement to the personnel department, but he also noticed that the guy who's pushing him is getting stronger, too.

Austin Corbett, Corey Miller

"Explosiveness, a lot of power behind his movements," Miller said. "Again, I'm just essentially a blocking dummy at this point, but being a heavier guy close to 290 pounds, I mean, he has no issue moving me off the ball.

"I would say he's in a good place every time I see him. He's working extremely hard. He's consistent. He comes in with a plan every single day. He knows what he wants to address; he knows how to get the responses that he's looking for.

"It's honestly fun to watch."

Miller's not the only one who is noticing the gains in strength.

Corbett's wife Madison, who once gave her husband a complex early in his recovery because his church pants were too baggy (a result of not lifting a bunch of weights and eating less to account for the lack of activity), noticed something different lately.

"I know Madison said my lats were looking bigger, and so I'll take that as a big compliment out of her," Corbett said. "Yeah, we've really come full circle here."

But jokes from his co-workers or wife aside, the strength difference is noticeable. When you're in the grind of a season, it's hard to get much bigger or stronger because so much of your work is toward recovery or maintenance. But Corbett has been able to focus on the weight room, and can tell a difference.

"Just everything, just all my weights, everything, whether it's a heavy row, pull-ups, bench, squats, power cleans; everything I'm doing is the best I've ever done in my entire life," he said. "This is my body, actually.

"It's actually having an offseason. So it was the first time I was actually able to go and heal and definitely see the benefits of it."

Strength is one thing. The next challenge will be stamina.

NFL games last three hours if they don't go to overtime, or you're not throwing a lot of incomplete passes. There are breaks, but prepping for eight to 10 possessions a game, some of which might go 10 plays or more, is different than running on a treadmill.

So when Corbett is doing his drills with Miller, it's not like a weight room workout where you do three sets of 10 reps of something. One set might be three plays, as if the offense didn't get a first down and had to punt. The next one might be 10 in a row, at high intensity, to replicate what a two-minute drill might be like. The point is to keep Corbett a little off-balance because that's what a game does, too.

He's been rehabbing close to 250 days since the injury, and they only started football drills about three weeks ago (Aug. 21, to be exact, and Corbett can show you the video to prove it: "We're using up a lot of storage in this phone").

"That's literally the only way," Corbett said. "That first week, it's like you're kind of exhausted after 30 minutes, and I need to be able to sustain for a four-hour game. So it's just increasing that and trying to simulate a game as best you can. So with a sled push, here's a 5-yard maximum strain, and then you jog it off to get back to the huddle. OK, here's the call. You go straight again for 5 or 6 seconds, and then you reset. Maybe it's five reps, maybe 15.

"So it's just simulating that offensive line work. Everything is maximum strain for 3 to 6 seconds, just all out. Then you relax and get in the huddle. Can I hear the play? Do it again, strain. OK, big gain, go cover; you got to run down, catch your breath, get in the huddle. It's just about slowly stacking up those days."

Austin Corbett

The other new thing is the presence of his coaches.

Offensive line coach James Campen and assistant Robert Kugler have been monitoring some of Corbett's drill work when it starts before practices and walk-throughs. They're aware that all these steps are prescribed by the team's sports science and athletic training department, and they watch, too, so no one gets too far ahead in the work. Assistant athletic trainer Katy Rogers, who has been Corbett's guardian angel since the day in January they flew to Los Angeles together for his surgery (actually way before that), is always nearby.

"I mean, the way they handle their business here is just, it's outstanding," Campen said. "I mean, I can't tell you the care they're showing for him. And when you get to this stage, care, to me, equals confidence. When you get ready to move and clearly this strength staff and the medical people and the surgeons and, and the trainers — all the individual care and trust that goes into that breeds confidence.

"So when he goes out there, he can confidently progress because he also knows that, and they aren't going to screw him up because the training staff, Katy's right there, Corey is there saying no, that's too much. And we go on. It's so important to have that, because he's an eager guy. So having them knowing when he might need to pull back keeps him from putting on the pouty face."

Campen played seven years in the league himself and has been coaching for what feels like forever, so he knows about incremental gains being the only way to really make progress.

So when he looks at Corbett, he's seeing them.

"I'm amazed; like when we first started this process, when they asked us to come out and start doing some of those things, I'm like, holy crap, is he ready to play now?" Campen said. "You know, because they've got him so far. They've done such an awesome job with getting him to that. So, really, our job is to do drills, make sure the drills are in compliance with this rehab and under their direction to make sure that we're doing things in a progressive manner and not trying to skip a step.

"But in my mind, I'm like, holy s---, let's just go ahead and start doing all the drills. But there's a progression that has to be followed."

And part of that progression means waiting.

James Campen

When the Panthers took the roster to the 53 men they'd carry into the regular season, Corbett's name wasn't on that list. He moved to the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which means he can't return until at least Week 5, though it might not be that soon. It's kind of a technicality since he wouldn't have been ready to play now anyway, but there was also a finality to it, an official declaration that those guys are over there footballing, and you can stand over here and rehab or whatever. They're all in this together, but you can't help but feel different.

"When it came across, it was like, all right," he said with a shrug. "It was never like, dang, and you're bummed out. Like it was, I knew how I was feeling in my rehab, right? I knew I wasn't going to play Week 1 just based on that anyway, So it really didn't affect anything at all, but you knew."

And as of Thursday, he was waiting to hear if he would travel with the team tomorrow on the short flight to Atlanta.

One of the things you learn when you're intimately aware of the physiology of your own body is that a knee can swell when you sit inside a pressurized metal tube at 30,000 feet. Austin Corbett has been pounding tart cherry juice for months to prevent swelling and inflammation, so signing up for it isn't high on the list. But he might travel because it's such a short flight. If this game was in Seattle, it probably wouldn't even be considered. Also, Sunday is usually a rest day for him, and he's learned that "time on feet" is another factor that can lead to swelling, and when you're not playing, there's a lot of that.

"We'll see what they say," he said earlier this week.

But it's a quick flight, and the Panthers have a very young offensive line (three rookies, including one in his spot), so there's also a benefit to having him around.

"Whatever help I can give them, or they can also tell me to shut the heck up, then I'll shut up," he said. "You know, but whatever they want, Sunday is about the players; they've got to make sure they get whatever they want."

Austin Corbett, Corey Miller

Friday afternoon, he got the word he was officially in the travel party. To call it a relief understates it significantly.

"Very much so," Corbett said.

So it will be good to be connected to the team, but it will be weird not to be suiting up and playing since he's that's what he's done in 64 straight games (counting playoffs, including a Super Bowl run with the Rams).

"Obviously, this entire time, I think mindset-wise, it's been super easy on me. With it being offseason, I didn't miss any actual games," he said. "Training camp is obviously tough to miss, but I'm working, so it's different. So like, it doesn't count. This is, this is a real game. So I'm interested to see how I handle that."

Corbett's been so detailed in his recovery he can recite small percentages of a hundred different metrics. This one, he has no data for since he hasn't missed a game since just after his trade to the Rams in 2019, when he was inactive for a few weeks.

"I don't know, I haven't done it in four years, so we'll find out, it's bizarre," he admitted.

The other thing he doesn't know is when that football work he's doing now will turn into something that includes a helmet and pads, and then, someday, another person in helmet and pads.

Thomas Brown, Austin Corbett, Robert Kugler

He has a plan in place — there's a plan for everything — but he doesn't know the specific time when he'll actually step onto a practice field again. It's at least three more weeks away and probably a few more after that.

"We've got the next two months planned out every single day, and so we know exactly where we're going and those are the steps we're going to take and how we're feeling every day," he said. "So that's the credit to the staff and the communication that they have from the athletic training staff to the sports science, to the trainers.

They're always on the same page, and they're always cued in, and now I'm putting the coaches into that as I'm doing this work."

One day, he knows he'll see head athletic trainer Kevin King come his way to give him the news he's been waiting exactly eight months and counting to hear. But he has no idea when that day will be.

"I don't want to give myself hope and then have pressure set in along with it," Corbett said. "So we're just going to ride this progression, and as we're going, feeling really good doing this individual work.

"So, like today, it was just the best I felt ever, and I felt strong and fast, and so we'll see what tomorrow is. It's the only way that we, again, 240-some days into this thing, the only thing that's got me through. So it'll be a little bit of a surprise."

At least there's one thing Corbett knows for sure. When the Panthers take off for Atlanta tomorrow, he'll be on the plane.

It's a step closer to where he wants to be, a place you only get by taking one step at a time.

Austin Corbett

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