LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) First there was the head injury that looked as if it might end his career. Then there was the coaching change that turned him from Nebraska's quarterback of the future into the guy occupying the bottom rung of the depth chart with little chance to rise.
Springs are for fresh starts, and Zack Darlington is out to make the most of his. His quarterback days now behind him, he'll go into his fourth practice as a slot receiver on Saturday with hopes of getting on the game field this fall.
''Personally, it is hard,'' Darlington said. ''You've got to be able to give up things for people you care about. I care about this team, I care about the program and I care about Husker Nation. If they need me to run routes and catch balls, I'll do that. If they need me to run down the field and tackle someone, I'll do that.''
That Darlington is able to play football might surprise people who saw him get hurt during the nationally televised opener of his senior season for Apopka (Florida) High in 2013. Darlington was running toward the sideline looking to pass when a defender made helmet-to-helmet contact with him. His head also hit the turf, and he was knocked unconscious. Darlington was transported by helicopter to a hospital with his second concussion in two months.
Then-Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told Darlington if he still wanted to go to Nebraska he would be on scholarship whether he was able to play or not. Darlington spent the rest of his senior year recovering and decided with his family that he would continue to play. He redshirted his first year at Nebraska and then found himself buried at No. 4 on the depth chart after Mike Riley took over for the fired Pelini last year.
Darlington didn't even get a snap of mop-up duty last season, and playing time at quarterback appeared unlikely in 2016 with the arrival of four-star recruit Patrick O'Brien. But Darlington wowed the coaching staff with his speed in athletic performance testing following winter conditioning, and he and Riley agreed a position change was in order.
''Zack and I have been talking for a while about something like this,'' Riley said. ''What he's looking for is opportunity, and what we're looking for is the placement of a guy who is really a good athlete somewhere he can find a niche more easily. Maybe it'll be right where he is. He's playing slotback. We'll see how that goes.''
Darlington, one of the country's top dual-threat quarterbacks going into his senior year of high school, said he didn't fit the pro-style offense Riley envisions for Nebraska over the long haul. Darlington has a girlfriend at Nebraska, and he loves the school, so he didn't want to transfer.
''Maybe God's plan is different than mine,'' he said. ''If I were to go back to my senior year, it wouldn't have ended like that. But that's God's plan. You have to be able to trust it blindly.''
Slot receivers are prone to taking some of the hardest hits in the middle of the field, but Darlington said he isn't worried about being vulnerable because of his concussion history.
''It's football. I'm a mobile guy. I was going to get hit regardless,'' he said. ''I've taken care of myself. I've done everything I need to do.''
Darlington's father, Rick, is Apopka High's head coach and was overjoyed when Zack signed to play quarterback for the Huskers. When Zack called to tell him about the position change, Rick was far from disappointed. He was happy to hear his son would be given a real opportunity to get on the field.
''He wanted a chance to see me play football again'' Zack said, ''because the way it ended in high school, he didn't want that to be the end of my career.''