He considers himself a born optimist, always positive about his life and his future. But as he lay there on the Gophers practice field, his splintered left tibia visible through the blood, here's one thought that absolutely never went through Kim Royston's mind: Hey, this could be pretty good for my career.

His sunny outlook has returned, though, because on that same field, just a couple of dozen feet and 16 months removed from that ugly accident, Royston declared himself glad -- yes, glad -- that it happened.

"Yeah, looking back on it, I am," the Gophers senior safety said, though he probably didn't mean the agony of having his leg broken in two places after an awkward fall. But "I'm definitely glad I got the chance to be coached by a great coach like coach [Jerry] Kill. I'm really feeling the coaching staff right now. They're just blue-collar, hard-working guys."

They're pretty excited about him, too. Royston figures to be a starter in the defensive backfield, and Kill has described him as one of the keys to the Gophers' season. He has been on a college football team since 2006, "and there's nothing like somebody who's had experience," Kill said. "He's kind of like an assistant coach to us."

That's a lot of pressure to put on someone who has been through such a traumatic injury, and several surgeries afterward to insert, and then adjust, a titanium rod that holds the bone together. Simply playing again is a notable feat; asking him to be one of the leaders on defense is quite a burden.

But Royston said the second task shouldn't be so difficult, mainly because the first one already is accomplished. There's no limp, no stiffness, and no brake pedal in his brain slowing him down. He cleared the mental hurdle during spring drills, testing himself until he could play without even thinking about busted bones and tortuous rehab.

"If I had come back last year, I probably would have had some residual effects. The mental aspect would have been part of it," he said. "Now I get a fresh start -- new coaching staff, new team. And I'm just going to bring my leadership skills and experience to the table."

Wait, who expected Royston to ever play last year?

Oh, right. He did.

"I'm not a doctor," Royston said with a laugh at the persistent he's-getting-close stories that circulated last season. His coach at the time, Tim Brewster, even told a booster's gathering six days before the season opener that his starting safety might be available for the game. "I was just telling you what the doctors told me," Royston said.

Inside his leg, however, the bone had stopped growing around the break, and the rapid healing slowed. Royston couldn't walk without a limp, and he watched what he feared was his final college season slip away.

But last spring brought two career-changing developments: His leg healed completely. And the NCAA exhibited compassion by granting the 24-year-old a rare sixth year of eligibility. Royston never had stopped rehabbing with football as his goal; a strong senior season, he hopes, might earn him an NFL tryout next year, too.

"Any time a player gets injured, you really find out about their character. Do they sulk around and not try to get better, or are they a fight-back player?" Kill said. "To me, you judge a player by when his back is against the wall. [Kim] is still playing the game of football, and he could have given it up."

Instead, he's using his injury as motivation. Remember, the broken bones were a blessing.

"If that never would have happened, I wouldn't have the fight that I have now," Royston said. "I'd be like, 'Man, these are the dog days of camp,' [or] 'Man, I don't want to do these summer workouts.' But when you can't physically do something, you realize how much you love something. So now that I have that, I'm going to make the most out of it."