STILL just 22 years of age and coming off successive knee reconstructions, Gold Coast half-back Connor Budarick says he has a "point to prove" heading into the upcoming season.
Budarick ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the first time against North Melbourne in round two, 2021, and suffered the same fate midway through the 2022 season against Collingwood.
Working alongside Ben King and Lachie Weller, who were on the comeback from the same injury, 12 months ago, Budarick managed a return to the senior team for the final two rounds of last season.
And although the matches resulted in losses against Carlton and the Kangaroos to round out another disappointing season for Gold Coast, it meant the world for the Suns Academy graduate.
"I knew I had to work my backside off and play a few games in the VFL to earn my spot," Budarick told AFL.com.au.
"Even if it was just one game, I would have been happy with that, but lucky enough I got two in.
"Despite the results it was such a great feeling to be back out there again, just to get a taste for it. It made me really hungry for this year coming.
"Even in the pre-game warm-up, being in the room with the boys … as soon as you run out it's such a great feeling. Seeing everyone in the crowd, it just gives you that sense of belonging again. I felt at home."
It was just the kick-start to the off-season Budarick needed.
After playing 15 games in his debut season in 2020 and showing an ability to both lock down as a small defender and also be creative with his disposal, just 13 games followed over the next three years.
So, while the AFL team began its off-season at the start of September, Budarick continued training with the finals-bound VFL team and kept working hard through October and November.
He says his fitness and strength is now back to pre-knee injury levels.
"I think I could easily cool the jets and be happy with this block, but I feel like I've got a point to prove," he said.
"I've got to prove that I'm fit and healthy and ready to play footy.
"I don't have any excuses, so I've got to come (back from the Christmas break) prepared, especially with a new coach."
That new coach, Damien Hardwick, has already identified a role for Budarick – one that brought a smile to the young Sun's face.
"I feel like my best is good enough to be playing AFL and I've got to prove that to 'Dimma' … and really make playing off half-back my position.
"We've had a few good chats.
"He sees me as similar to Jayden Short or Liam Baker, those boys he used to look after, as that ball-user off half-back.
"I've got to really make it my position and train the house down."
With Weller currently on the way back from his second ACL injury, the door is open for Budarick to claim a spot in that back six if he impresses early in the new year.