ALBANY, Ga. -- Kareem Hess felt the pop, and then he felt the emotions.
"I just rolled over and busted into tears," Hess said, reflecting on an ACL injury last preseason that ended his junior year before it even started.
But now the Albany State senior rusher is back on the practice field, running sprints and making cuts without the aid of a brace. Hess' last two seasons have been derailed by ACL injuries to his right knee, but he says he is 100 percent this year and ready to be a leader in the Rams' backfield.
"I'm very excited," said Hess, who likely would have been the starter last season. "I come out here and try to work hard. This morning I went and got me some extra dunes in, trying to stay healthy. I am trying to lift two times a week to keep my legs strong and stay away from injuries."
Earlier in the week when the team opened practice with its traditional 6 a.m. workout at the sand dunes near campus, Hess was the one player leading the pack nearly every sprint up the hill.
He's back, and he joins a loaded backfield that includes key 2011 runners Nathan Hoyte and Adrian Alexander.
"Kareem) was letting me know he has been working hard," Hoyte said with a smile after Thursday's practice. "He was letting me know that he was going to be back. He kept saying, 'Next year's going to be a little different.' "
It's been a difficult college career for Hess since he signed with Albany State out of Tift County High School in the spring of 2008. He averaged around 5 yards per carry in limited action his freshman season but broke his finger attempting to catch a pass at the beginning of his sophomore year and was redshirted.
His next attempt at his sophomore season seemed to be going fine in 2010 when he had rushed for 182 yards and two TDs in the first six games before injuring his knee on a broken play against Benedict.
Hess was back to the sidelines, merely a spectator as the Rams put together one of their finest seasons in the history of their program, winning the conference title, SBN National Black College Football Championship and finishing with a record of 11-1.
About as soon as he stepped back on the field, he was back on the ground, writhing in pain with another ACL tear.
His second knee injury happened last August during two-a-days when he cut to the outside on a sweep and blew past the defense into the end zone. But as soon as he reached the goal line, his right foot stuck in the ground and his knee hyperextended.
"Last year, I came back too soon (after the first ACL tear)," Hess said. "I was only nine months out of my surgery (last year). This year, I am a full year out of my surgery and have been working hard."
He also benefited from the experience of rehabbing his knee the first time around.
"I came in knowing what to expect and knowing what I had to do," Hess said. "It's hard work when you tear an ACL, especially when you are working with (trainer Tim Hughley). He is going to push you. He is going to push you hard."
ASU coach Mike White said Hess' work with Hughley has been crucial.
"The whole offseason and even late last season, (Hughley) had him working and doing little things," White said. "We have seen him come a long way. We have seen him run on the track this summer with (Hughley). He will be a huge part of our backfield."
This year's backfield has the makings of something special with the addition of Hess and the return of Hoyte (774 yards, 7 TDs in 2011) and Alexander (238 yards, 3 TDs).
"The team worked hard over the summer, so we are excited to see how much we improved from the fall to the spring to this year," said Hoyte, who added that Hess will be a vital part of the backfield. "(Hess) is going to do his assignments. He is going to be where he is supposed to be and be in the right hole. He is going to make the right read, and he is going to be able
to break tackles. When you are able to do all three of those things, that usually leads to first downs and touchdowns."
And Hess can't wait to get started.
"I think it's going to be a very exciting year," Hess said. "We have some big-play guys, and I think we are (about) to make some stories this year. It's going to be exciting."