July 28, 2005
CBS SportsLine.com wire reports

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- He already was good. Really good. Experts touted him as a high first-round NFL Draft pick this past spring.


A serious knee injury put those pro plans on hold. Now, Eric Winston is back to prove he's better than ever.

Miami's left tackle is healthy and cleared to participate when the Hurricanes open camp on Aug. 8, when he'll start his mission to regain -- or exceed -- the form that left scouts drooling and opponents leery.

"If I would have not gotten hurt, I would have been top five in the draft, gotten a ton of money and I would have been some little kid with $20 million in my bank account and probably doing something stupid right now," the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Winston said. "Getting hurt kind of puts everything back in perspective."

Winston's 2004 season ended eight games early because of three torn ligaments in his left knee, an injury that probably played a major role in Miami's three-loss campaign -- one in which the Hurricanes failed to reach a Bowl Championship Series game for the first time since 1999.

It happened early in the fourth quarter of Miami's 27-3 win at Georgia Tech last Oct. 2. A missed block on the right side of the line allowed Georgia Tech linebacker Chris Reis an unimpeded path to Miami quarterback Kyle Wright, who tumbled to the turf in Reis' grasp.

Winston fell backward over Wright and shredded his knee.

Season over, just like that.

The plane ride home from Atlanta -- which should have been joyous, with the Hurricanes celebrating their first Atlantic Coast Conference road win -- instead was one on which Miami president Donna Shalala spent time comforting Winston and telling him a fourth year in school could be a good thing.

"What happened with Eric took the wind out of the coaches' sails and the team's sails that day," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "We were pretty down as a staff and as a football team for quite a while. ... No doubt, we struggled offensively without him. With Eric, things might have been different."

With him, they were 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation. Without him, they went 5-3, each loss coming by a touchdown or less -- and in games in which they certainly could have benefited from having their best lineman, and perhaps their best leader, on the field instead of the sideline.

Inability to run the ball was a consistent thread in each of Miami's losses a year ago. The Hurricanes averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in defeats to Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. In the games in which Winston was in the lineup, Miami averaged 4.2 yards per carry.

"He's such a physical player. ... He makes those backs a lot better when he's in the ball game," said Mickey Andrews, Florida State's longtime defensive coordinator. "You can't let him get his hands on you. He's a great leader on top of it. That might be the most significant contribution to the team."

The leadership is visible on the field, in meeting rooms and in the weight room -- but the best example Winston sets may be in the classroom. He was an international finance and marketing major who finished his degree in three years, yet isn't fixated on the millions that await him.


"Money can't buy happiness," he said. "To me, the only thing it buys is freedom. You can do whatever you want."

His goals are very simple, yet very lofty.

He wants to win a national championship -- not a day passes, he says, that he doesn't spend time lamenting Miami's 31-24 double-overtime loss to Ohio State in the BCS title game following the 2002 season -- and play well enough to go No. 1 overall in the draft.

"No two ways about it," Winston said. "I expect to be the top guy taken."

He pauses for a moment and shakes an index finger toward his knee.

"This thing's not going to hold me back," he added. "If I'm not there, it's not because of this. It's because I didn't play good enough. And whether or not that's going to be the case, it's not going to be because I haven't worked hard enough to do this."

Indeed, it wasn't unusual to see Winston arrive for workouts at 6:30 a.m. this summer, beginning a several-hour period of sprints, stair runs, weightlifting and other exercises. His comeback is so vigorous that Andreu Swasey, the team's strength and conditioning coach, often has to hold Winston back a bit.

"He's stronger than he was before," Swasey said. "With Eric and his determination and dedication, it's all been working. He believes in the program we have here, and the numbers and results show where he's at."

Winston came to Miami as a tight end, and backed up Kellen Winslow Jr.

He literally outgrew that position; to keep his weight under 280 pounds, he could only eat salads for dinner. Eventually, he realized his future was on the offensive line, so he volunteered to help fill some holes created by the graduation of several starters following the 2002 season.

Winston quickly blossomed into one of the nation's best, and vows to be better than ever in his final collegiate season.

"I started playing in full pads when I was in third grade, 9 years old," Winston said. "Every kid, this is where they want to get to. I've outlasted about 98 percent of them. Now it's time to finish them off. I've always had goals. I've never not gotten to them -- and I've got two or three to finish off this year."