Defensive linemen aren't generally described as giddy, but there's no other way to sum up Joseph Champaign's outlook during preseason camp.

He's enjoying his shiny new pads, the smell of fresh cut grass on the practice fields and time with his friends after a summer apart. In short, the Air Force junior is loving life.

"It's really like Christmas," Champaign said.

The happiness is no doubt magnified by the lows Champaign went through since he last stepped on a football field.

In the first play of the Nov.?24 loss to Fresno State, Champaign cut to pursue a ball carrier and blew out the ACL in his right knee. The knee couldn't be operated on for about three weeks because of swelling, but that time period fell in the middle of finals. So Champaign waited it out and had the surgery during winter break.

It was the same knee that Champaign blew out in his seventh game during his senior year in high school. After that first injury, the damaged ACL was rebuilt with part of his patella. This time the spare parts came from his hamstring.

Days after surgery, Champaign tore that donor hamstring while hopping on crutches. Then, Jan. 13, he was diagnosed with a blood clot in his calf that developed as a result of the surgery.

"A bunch of stuff went wrong," said Champaign, who missed spring practice while recovering. "But (Erick) Kozlowski in the training room really helped me out."

Champaign has been cleared to return and says he feels 100 percent.

Tests have shown no deficit in strength. He's practicing, though he's taking minimal reps during the first week.

This summer he completed combat survival training.

"He's done a hell of job on rehabbing and getting back," said Falcons defensive line coach Matt Weikert. "Right now he's able to go through some of the position drills, but we're keeping him out of the team drills as a precaution."

Champaign started eight games as a sophomore and his 24 tackles ranked fourth among defensive linemen. He had 1? sacks and two tackles for loss against Hawaii.

As one of two returning starters among the front seven on defense, he wants to improve on those numbers and doesn't see his knee getting in the way of that.

"My knee actually feels better than what it was," he said. "It's like a new wheel. I'm ready to go."