GREEN BAY – Now that Josiah Deguara has been practicing for a few days, Head Coach Matt LaFleur feels "he picked up right where he left off last season."
That comment came prior to Thursday's practice, and then Deguara confirmed it with his most notable play of camp thus far to close a competitive 11-on-11 period.
As Aaron Rodgers caught the defense with 12 men on the field to earn a free play, the second-year tight end was right in sync with his quarterback, finding an opening up the seam and snagging Rodgers' bullet pass for a big gainer.
For Deguara (6-2, 238), who returned late last week from a torn ACL that ended his rookie season last October, it was one of at least three receptions for him from Rodgers during 11-on-11 work on Thursday alone.
The activity is a sign there'll be little hesitation this season in throwing Deguara right back into the prominent, versatile role he earned for last year's opener – lining up in the slot, in the backfield or in-line as a traditional tight end.
"Deguara looks fantastic," LaFleur said. "He's just such a savvy, smart football player. There's so many things he does that are tough to coach."
LaFleur went on to describe one of those things, on a play earlier this week when he came out of the backfield on a running play. His job was to get through the middle of the line to block the weak-side linebacker, but the defense switched the front and took away his normal path to the defender.
On the fly, Deguara found a way to maneuver through traffic to execute his assignment anyway, this just a few days after an arduous 10-month rehab.
"A lot of guys can't do that," LaFleur said.
Not many can generate the confidence in the coaching staff as quickly as Deguara did last year, either, arriving as a third-round draft pick from Cincinnati and learning the offense virtually in the offseason.
With just three weeks of training camp and no preseason games, Deguara was in the starting lineup Week 1 at Minnesota. He recorded his first NFL reception (for 12 yards) and threw a key block to take out two defenders, springing receiver Allen Lazard for a 19-yard run on an end-around.
Unfortunately, he hurt his ankle, missed the next two games, and then tore the ACL in his Week 4 return on a late-game special-teams play. A promising rookie season was suddenly over.
"There's definitely that little timeline right after you get hurt, you gotta give yourself some time to be angry, give yourself time to feel bad about yourself," he said. "It's part of the whole journey, and I don't know exactly how long that took to get over but … when I got surgery it was time to grind from there.
"The mental side of being hurt, not being able to play the game, not being around the team as much, it takes a toll on you for sure."
His own strong will combined with his faith and a burgeoning friendship with offseason rehab partner David Bakhtiari (who tore his ACL in late December) helped get him through it.
But Deguara shouldn't sell himself short, because he possesses the athletic talent and football IQ to do whatever he's asked. The latter was built partly in his youth, playing center as early as third grade and then quarterback for a handful of years before settling in as a productive receiver/tight end who caught 40 TD passes his last two years in high school.
"I've always tried to be a student of the game," he said. "Wherever I was, whether in high school, college, trying to do that extra work to know not only what I've got, but just learning the game of football. I'm still obviously learning a lot right now."
He's also learned, or perhaps been reminded, how much he loves the game after such an extended time away from it. Even a fourth practice in a row on Thursday felt nothing like training-camp doldrums to him.
"Your appreciation … I'm excited to be back out there every single day," he said. "Playing for the Green Bay Packers, man, it's an unbelievable experience, and I'm just trying to take advantage of every opportunity."