North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin is exactly where he wants to be this week — back on the football field.
He returned with two goals: To showcase his skills and remove any doubts about his character.
Austin practiced for the first time in months as he prepared for Saturday's East-West Shrine Game after missing his senior season for his role in an agent scandal that engulfed the Tar Heels' football program. He told The Associated Press Thursday that there is no one to blame but himself, that he regrets his mistakes and is focused on "showing everybody who I really am."
He expressed remorse following his final walkthrough before the first major college football all-star game of the 2010 postseason.
"It wasn't so much that the spotlight was on me (this week), it was just getting out here and playing, showing that I was training and was working while I was out," Austin said. "And just to get out here and show that I still got it.
"I've been working. I've been working the whole time (since his dismissal). I wouldn't have been able to get through these practices if I wasn't working."
Austin was suspended by the Tar Heels for their first five games and dismissed from the program on Oct. 11. He and teammates Greg Little and Robert Quinn were ruled to have violated the NCAA's rules governing agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct.
Quinn and Little were declared "permanently ineligible" for receiving more than $4,900 each in improper benefits from agents. Austin was kicked off the team after the NCAA said he received between $10,000 and $13,000 in agent benefits.
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Austin earned second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as a junior in 2009, amassing 42 tackles and four sacks for UNC team that was looking to begin a resurgence in the ACC in 2010.
But UNC saw 14 of its players miss at least one game and seven players sit out the entire season because of the scandal. The Tar Heels sputtered to a 7-5 regular season finish before beating Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
Austin said not being with his teammates was the hardest part.
"It was extremely tough to see my teammates suffer at the hands of myself and some of the other players on the team," said Austin, who will be allowed to wear his UNC helmet on Saturday. "We didn't think the decisions that we made were going to come to that, but you live and you learn. It was a 21-year-old's decision and I grew from it. It's in the past. I'm just ready to go play football and hopefully help an NFL team in the next coming months."
Both Austin and Quinn, a defensive end, were considered to be first-round NFL prospects prior to the season. But without a senior season worth of film, Austin's endurance this week has certainly been a key focus of the than 200 scouts and NFL team officials that have attended practices in Orlando.
NFL veteran Dan Reeves is serving as head coach for the East squad and said that despite Austin's layoff, he has been impressed with his performance.
"I know one thing, he's got our attention on offense," Reeves said. "He shows up all the time. He spends more time in our backfield than he does on the line. We haven't been able to block him. So he's definitely legit. He's gonna be a good prospect."
Austin said that he hasn't shied away from talking about the agent scandal with NFL scouts during informal interviews with several teams this week.
"I've done a lot of interviews and met with a lot of NFL teams," he said. "I've been completely honest and told them I'm ready to play. They're going to form their opinion about Marvin Austin based on what we talked about and hopefully it's all good."
The ordeal also hasn't prevented Austin from reaching out to his former UNC teammates and coaches.
"I talk to everybody on the team," he said. "I still love my team. I still love UNC. I have no dissension from the university or anybody. Like I said, I made bad decisions and I had to pay for them. I just still want to make sure everybody knows that I still bleed blue. I'm a Tar Heel born, a Tar Heel bred and I'll be a Tar Heel dead."
He said that olive branch has also been extended to UNC coach Butch Davis.
"I've talked to him," Austin said. "I'm still cool with coach Davis. I respect what he was able to do without some of the guys we had. It's just a testament to the type of coach he is."
Whatever wounds that still need healing at UNC, at the end of the day Austin said just being back on a football field this week is what's given him the most joy.
"It's just fun to get back out here and hit somebody," he said. "It's just in my nature. It's been fun being around guys I've known since high school. Guys like (Virginia Tech quarterback) Tyrod Taylor. Guys like (LSU receiver) Terrence Toliver. It's been a fun experience for me...This is where I'm supposed to be."