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Mike Spofford

Mike Spofford has worked as a sportswriter in Wisconsin since 1995 and has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006. He has covered the Packers' last two Super Bowl appearances, XXXII and XLV.

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Grant full speed for first practice

Posted Jul 30, 2011

TE Finley, DE Neal also hungry to return to field

Jermichael Finley says he’ll be excited “just touching the grass.” Ryan Grant’s body feels the best it has “in a long time.” Mike Neal knows he’ll have to “pace” himself, “remain calm.”

Their own words Saturday afternoon reflected similar circumstances as the Packers prepared to take the practice field for the first time in 2011. Finley, Grant and Neal are three key players who spent Green Bay’s run to Super Bowl XLV on injured reserve, which means when they talk about their hunger for the new season, it isn’t lip service.

“There is no complacency,” Grant said. “If you’re playing this game and you haven’t been around the Super Bowl, you can’t be complacent.”

The three appear to be in different stages in their recovery.

Grant, whose 2010 season ended in the second quarter of the opener in Philadelphia last September, says his ankle is healed and he’s full-go.

Finley, who hurt his knee in Week 5 at Washington last October, says he’ll be doing some individual drills and running “routes on air” on Saturday night, but he’ll be held out of team drills.

Neal, who was limited to just two games as a rookie last year due to a shoulder injury, isn’t sure how much he’ll practice, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy indicated earlier Saturday Neal wasn’t medically cleared, meaning like Finley he’ll be held out of team drills at a minimum.

However their offseason routine changes, for all three it will be welcome.

“I did rehab every day, 24/8. I added an extra day to it,” Finley said with his usual hyperbole. “I just got to work and got right.”

If Finley is right, the Packers offense will be as well. The ultra-athletic tight end was on pace for a 1,200-yard receiving season one-quarter of the way through 2010 before the knee injury, and with all the rehab and conditioning work he says he’s slimmed down to 240 pounds, seven less than his roster-listed weight.

Finley feels healthy enough to go all-out from day one, but he isn’t going to argue with McCarthy, whose normal procedure is to ease players returning from knee injuries back into the fold.

“He’s the head man, so I’m listening to him,” Finley said. “We ain’t got a game in a week, we ain’t got one in two weeks. We play Sept. 8 against the Saints, and I guarantee I’ll be out there.”

Grant wasn’t guaranteeing anything other than an intense competition with second-year running back James Starks for the starting job.

Running backs take the biggest beating of any position on an NFL roster, so sharing carries in training camp is never a bad thing. In terms of the tread left on the tires, Grant is an interesting case because he’ll turn 29 this season – one step shy of the supposed cliff for running backs – but he’s played only 2½ seasons as a featured runner, from mid-2007 through 2009.

“I probably gained a year back on my career just because of the wear and tear,” Grant said of carrying the ball just eight times last season. “No soreness, nothing going on. I’m ready to get back after it.”

So is Neal, a workout warrior who used his frustrations over a lost rookie season as fuel during the rehab and conditioning process. Neal missed the first three games of last season with an abdominal strain, then the final 11 plus the playoffs with the shoulder trouble.

“You get hurt your rookie year with high expectations, and they give you all this money and then you can’t contribute to the team, you go through so many emotions, from depression to beating yourself up,” said Neal, a second-round draft pick from Purdue. “Everybody’s trying to tell you it’s not your fault and you feel like it is your fault.”

In the two games he did play in 2010, Neal was a factor on the defensive line, forcing a fumble and recording a sack. He’s expected to take on an even bigger role up front with the pending free-agent departure of Cullen Jenkins, but he doesn’t see his minimal contributions from last year as having proven anything.

“My whole last year is erased,” he said. “I tell everybody that I’m just like a rookie learning. I’m hungry. I feel like I’m an undrafted free agent. I worked like that the whole offseason. That’s pretty much where my mind is at.”

The minds of these three are all pretty much in the same place.

“You don’t know when you’re going to get hurt or when somebody’s going to come get your spot,” Finley said. “So you play every play like it’s your last.”

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