When BYU football fans think of linebacker Zac Stout, the most common images that come to mind have nothing to do with the gridiron.

Many probably remember a late-night fight at a Provo Rancheritos restaurant that resulted in Stout being kicked off the team.

Others might think back to a signing announcement party in June of 2009 held at Iggy’s Sports Grill in Salt Lake City featuring Jake Heaps (now at Kansas) and Ross Apo when the trio made it known they were going to become Cougars.

Stout, who returned to the team this spring, is ready to put all those things behind him and focus on playing football.

“It feels great (to be back),” he said earlier in spring. “I’m still trying to get better every day, trying to get my legs back mainly. But it feels great to be out there with those guys again.”

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said he’s been glad to see Stout make the journey to again be back with the football team.

“That’s the best part of BYU football is to see those who have learned and then come back and improved their life,” Mendenhall said.

It wasn’t an easy journey for Stout after being dismissed from school and from the team. There were times he wondered whether he was going to follow that path or not.

“Right after, I was thinking I had to get back — but then as it went away, I started getting disappointed and went through that whole cycle,” Stout said. “I got a little mad, but then I decided I needed to get back, that this was where I needed to be and where I wanted to be. It was a great blessing in my life. It was a hard time, but it was a good time.”

He explained that the process involved getting things in order on multiple levels.

“The first thing was ecclesiastically, I had to get endorsed by my bishop,” Stout said. “That was all going good, then scholastically making sure I had all my classes done. After that, it was just making sure I was training and making sure I was meeting with the coaches all the time, making sure I was in the right place to come back. It was a good process.”

He credited inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell for being there for him and helping him progress.

“Coach Tidwell was texting me a lot, which really kept my head up and kept me in the direction I needed to go,” Stout said. “It kept me driving. He’s a great coach. I love Coach Tidwell. He’s just there for all of his players. He has our back no matter what. We can go to him with anything. He’s almost like a father and a great coach.”

For his part, Tidwell said he’s thrilled to see what the linebacker has done in order to again be a part of the Cougar squad.

“I was probably more excited for the changes he’s made in his life, the young man that he is,” Tidwell said. “I was happy to see him do the things that were asked of him by Coach Mendenhall and the university to get back in good standing and come back to BYU. I was happy to see his life changes and I’m very happy he’s back.”

While many things have fallen into place, Stout isn’t done yet.

“Zac is coming back as a walk-on without his scholarship to re-earn it,” Mendenhall said. “He’s battled to get back. Hopefully he’ll re-earn his scholarship through the fall and it will be a complete happy ending.”

Stout is now listed as a senior and is one of few BYU players at inside linebacker with much experience. Most of his on-field time came in 2010 as a freshman, when he participated in 10 games and registered 21 total tackles with two tackles for a loss.

All of the coaches and Stout’s teammate on the linebacking corps say he’s heading the right direction but he’s still far from being ready to step on the field.

“He’s battling hard,” Mendenhall said. “He’s not to where he was when he left yet, but that’s to be expected. But we need him to be able to play, so hopefully he could be No. 1, 2 or 3 in terms of depth. We’re still a ways away but he’s trying hard.”

Tidwell added: “He’s a ways off physically. He’s been out of it for a year-and-a-half and hasn’t played for a while. He had two knee surgeries before. He’ll be ready by August to go full speed but right now he’s a bit banged up and it will take awhile physically for him to get back.”

Junior linebacker Manoa Pikula, who is working at Mike linebacker with Stout, said getting the legs back is the biggest thing for Stout.

“Zac’s just barely getting back into things and he’s looking good,” Pikula said. “He told me that it was hard for him to make the cuts. His legs were sore. I feel like he’s doing good. I always see him getting bat-downs and he’s got a few picks. I feel like he’s warming up to things and coming back slowly.”

While his body may be adjusting, Stout said that going through all of the challenges has helped him on the mental side of the game.

“I feel like I want it so much more,” the senior said. “I wanted it then but now it’s like my picture is clearer of what I need to do and how I need to do and how I need to do it.”

Stout said he still gets asked about what it was like to work his way back onto the team once in awhile, but for the most part he’s glad he’s moved beyond the past.

“There are a few questions here and there about how it was,” he said. “I just say it was good, it was a growing experience. (The past) is done now. It was a mistake and it’s over.”

Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or jlloyd@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.

Jared is the Sports Editor and BYU football reporter for the Daily Herald.