CARLTON is eyeing a remarkable early season return for highly respected defender Sam Docherty, with the club bullish on its former co-captain's chances of making a prompt comeback to the game.

Docherty underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy after discovering a secondary reoccurrence of testicular cancer last August, but recently started to ramp up his training loads as he aims to get a full season under his belt.

The talented 28-year-old stepped down from co-captaincy duties last month to focus entirely on his recovery, impressing new Blues coach Michael Voss with his commitment to making a rapid return.

Sam Docherty at Carlton training on December 6, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Although this week's scratch match against St Kilda will likely arrive too soon for Docherty, there is hope he may feature in the club's AAMI Community Series clash with Melbourne next Thursday and mark another significant step in his recovery.

"He's absolutely desperate to get out a full season. Some of the ground he's made in the last month has come really quick. We also have to be cautious with that. He'll tell us how he's travelling," Voss told last week.

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"We'll put the load to him and see what he can cope with, but certainly in the last month we've become more bullish with where he's at. We're certainly hoping that he has a fairly large say on the front-end of the season.

Sam Docherty during Carlton's official team photo shoot on February 15, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"From when I first walked in during October, it was looking like that timeline might have been a hell of a lot longer – if he'd return at all. That, in itself, probably says a fair bit about Sam Docherty."

As for whether Docherty will do enough to earn his place across half-back for the side's blockbuster round one clash with Richmond on March 17, the final decision may rest with the former All-Australian himself.

"We'll let where he's at tell us," Voss said.

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"In some instances, we're quite happy to project about what we might think that looks like. But I don't think Sam sits in that at the moment. We feel like with every week we get with him – and with every little step he takes – that he makes that strong progress. If it's not round one, it'll be very close."


It's unlikely that Docherty will be the only familiar face down back for Carlton this season, with former free agent recruit Zac Williams another expected to be lining up in a defensive role under Voss.

Williams was signed from Greater Western Sydney at the end of 2020 with the idea of playing predominantly as a midfielder, but a rough start to life at Ikon Park saw him return to his former role as a running defender in the back-half of last season.

Williams has continued to train as a defender under Voss, with the club's new coach open to the idea of using the 27-year-old in a variety of different positions but with a focus on providing rebound out of defence.

Zac Williams at Carlton training on December 6, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"I certainly don't want to take anything off the table, but if we had to pick a more predominant position it would be across half-back," Voss said.

"The beauty with Zac – and even with Mitch McGovern for that matter – is that they do have the capacity to play in different positions. If it's required, either on a weekly basis or throughout games, we have a few strategic levers that we can go with if we need to as a coaching group."


A similar situation will unfold for Carlton's former first-round pick Liam Stocker, who is another expected to remain in a defensive role this season despite the prospect of moving into the midfield.

Stocker is currently recovering from a syndesmosis injury sustained in December and is considered a 50-50 chance of being deemed fit to play round one, but will line up as a small defender should he be made available.

"I've had lots of chats with 'Stock'," Voss said.

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"We still feel like, for the now, he's about playing across half-back and developing his skillset there. There's been no real further discussion outside of that. He's really clear on that. In fact, he's pretty keen to get stuck into it.

Liam Stocker flies during a Carlton training session at Ikon Park in December, 2021. Picture:

"It was pretty disappointing, clearly, that he got injured. He had a fantastic preparation pre-Christmas. It was really unlucky that he got hurt just before Christmas, because he was in great shape.

"The work that he put into his body and where he got himself to has held him in really good stead in this early part of his rehab. We're hoping in the next couple of weeks, he might be able to step up a little bit more and re-join the ball program."


One new name who will play in a defensive role this season is Mitch McGovern, having approached Voss about the prospect of reinventing himself as an intercept player like his brother Jeremy.

The versatile swingman has kicked just 37 goals from 33 games playing predominantly as a forward during his three seasons at Carlton, but spoke to Voss upon the new coach's arrival last September about whether he could make the move into the backline.

McGovern has several similar attributes to his brother Jeremy, who is a premiership-winning defender and a four-time All-Australian at West Coast, and has enjoyed a standout summer on the track at Ikon Park.

Mitch McGovern poses for a photo during Carlton's team photo day on February 15, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"If I was confident about it at the start, I'm even more confident about it now. But we have some training to go off the back of that. When he first went in, he still had some physical hurdles to overcome. But we all see the attributes that he's got," Voss said.

"What's been really striking about 'Gov' is that he's had a real urgency in the way he's gone about his pre-season. He's been extremely motivated and he's done everything that's required to give himself the best chance to go out and play good football. That guarantees nothing, but it certainly gives you a hell of a good chance."

McGovern's defensive move will give Carlton a timely boost following the retirement of Liam Jones late last year, but had already been in the works prior to the veteran's unexpected announcement.

"The Liam Jones decision had nothing to do with it," Voss said.

"It was in discussions with him and, giving it some more thought, it made sense. But he was well and truly along that path before I'd even had a chance to talk to him. As I chatted to him and it became clearer, he had a passion about it. That's what he wanted to do and we were happy to facilitate that."