ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — This was supposed to be Brannan Southerland's big year.
Southerland was supposed to be the starting fullback who cleared running lanes for Knowshon Moreno and helped give Matthew Stafford time to pass. The goal-line threat was supposed to have chances to add to his career total of 21 touchdowns.
Even a broken bone in his foot, first diagnosed late in the 2007 season, was not expected to interfere with Southerland's senior plans. There was plenty of time to have the surgery and be ready for 2008.
Then, just as Southerland was about to receive medical clearance in June, a CT scan delivered the crushing news. Doctors found another break in the same bone.
A second surgery was needed. Almost half of his final season would be lost.
Coach Mark Richt said Southerland "went in the tank" after hearing the report.
Said Southerland: "There was a good week and a half there where I was pretty down."
Southerland, who started seven or more games each of his first three seasons, returned to his home in Dacula, Ga., near Atlanta "and stayed with my mom for a little bit."
The quiet time provided opportunity to deal with the bitter news.
"It was then I kind of realized this is going to affect the first half of the season," he said.
Richt said Southerland soon recovered his spirit.
"Within a couple of days he was like 'This could happen to anybody,'" Richt said. "'This is where I'm at. This is part of life. It doesn't always go the way you want it to go. I'm going to come back from it.'"
The comeback took about as long as expected. Southerland missed four games and returned to play only on special teams against Alabama two weeks ago. He finally will be back on offense when No. 10 Georgia plays Tennessee on Saturday.
Southerland, elected a team captain, is expected to return as a starter.
"It's been a very, very difficult road," he said.
"It's my last year. I'm not eligible for a medical redshirt. This is it. I had to work to get back and get in as much of the season as I could."
The 6-foot, 240-pound Southerland, named by The Birmingham News as the SEC's best blocking back, had 10 touchdowns in 2006 to become the first fullback to lead the team in scoring in 49 years.
It's easy to place value on Southerland's touchdowns, but it was his value as a leader that was missed by an offense that had only one senior starter, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, in the first five games.
Southerland's on-field leadership is restored just as Georgia will try to recover from its first loss of the season.
"I think it's significant in that he's one of our finest leaders on the team," Richt said. "He's one of the most respected players on the team, and arguably the most respected player on the team."
Richt said his staff voted Southerland as an offensive team captain against Tennessee "and he hasn't even taken a snap offensively."
"That gives you an indication of how the staff feels about his leadership ability and his playing ability as an offensive football player," Richt said.
Shaun Chapas, a sophomore, earned high grades as the starting fullback in the first five games. But Southerland's return makes fullback a position of strength.
"It's good to get him back," Moreno said. "He's a big boy and he's a veteran and it will be good to get the fullbacks back together and have that depth again."