The game doesn't look any different to Syracuse wide receiver Marcus Sales now, a year after missing a full season. And thanks to the senior's natural talent, he doesn't look any different in it.
After all, the receiver has netted 350 yards and four touchdowns for the Orange already, in three games. He's leading the Big East in catches and yards per game and looks poised to break a couple of program records this year as Syracuse heads to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday as the Gophers' first BCS opponent of the season.
Yes, the game looks pretty similar to Sales as it did when he last played, giving a beastly performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at the end of 2010. But just maybe the receiver appreciates everything a little bit more: marching into the Carrier Dome, being with his teammates, the good exhaustion that comes from a hard practice, rather than a draining life crisis.
Sales had finished his junior year strong, and after a good spring and summer in 2011, he was looking forward to what he thought would be his breakout season. But last July he was arrested on drug charges after getting pulled over at a traffic stop with multiple bags of marijuana, bags of painkillers and digital scales.
As a result, Sales was suspended for the entire season.
"It's a big wakeup moment," said Sales, who played as a true freshman and still had a redshirt year to use. "It was real hard, just being away from the game period, and you're seeing your friends and your teammates -- that you've built a relationship over the past year -- go out there and battle and you know you can help, but you can't do anything about it. It hurts a lot. That's something I don't want to see anybody go through."
Given a second chance -- after all, the charges were dropped, allowing for Sales to re-enroll in school -- Sales buckled down, working hard to get his legs back under him in the spring and perfecting his timing with quarterback Ryan Nassib in one-on-one practices over the summer.
"I'm definitely more focused," said the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Sales, who became the first Syracuse receiver with four consecutive 100-yard games with his 117-yard showing a week ago against Stony Brook.
"This is my senior season. I can't repeat this year, so I just want to go out there and leave everything on the field, ... The game means a lot, and I realized that a lot."
Said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone: "In the past I've talked about Marcus not being as consistent during practice, and what I've seen from Marcus since he's been back is that consistency ... and obviously it's carrying over now to back-to-back-to-back games for him."
And it's helped build momentum for an offense that is playing much better than its 1-2 record suggests. After losses against Northwestern and USC -- the Orange lost to the Wildcats by one point and played USC closely for three quarters -- Syracuse earned its first win last week. The offense has piled up 1,600 yards with a no-huddle, fast-paced style.
"They're explosive -- they're very explosive," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "[They] are very gifted at wide receiver and quarterback, and they can go vertical with the football. It's a different skill set than we've seen and, I mean, it's a great challenge for us in the secondary, there's no question about that."
Sales is a big part of that, becoming the main target for Nassib -- who has thrown for 300 yards in every game this season -- after Syracuse lost four of its top five receivers from last year. Given the opportunity, Sales wants to leave a different impact than he did a year ago.
"I just want to be a leader for my team and for the younger guys," he said.