Rookies and first-year players may have graced Clarke Hinkle Field over the weekend, but the Green Bay Packers' 2003 training camp won't really be under way until Tuesday morning, when the veterans come out and the pads go on.
When that happens, offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are expected to be there, severely limited in their practice participation, but closer to the action than they've been in months, before serious injuries ended their 2002 seasons prematurely.
For Tauscher it happened in just the second week of the regular season. New Orleans Saints linebacker Charlie Clemons fell into Tauscher's left knee causing a sprained medial collateral ligament and a 75-percent tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, which required surgery to repair.
Clifton didn't go down until Week 12, when a blind-side hit from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Warren Sapp caused such significant damage to his pelvis and groin that he couldn't get up. While surgery wasn't required, the injury left Clifton bedridden for weeks.
In the days following both injuries, training camp was set as a mark for their possible return. A distant appointment in both circumstances, but smacking of optimism just the same.
Tuesday, that date arrives at long last. And Clifton and Tauscher appear ready to meet the call.
Over the weekend, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said he expects both linemen to take part in the upcoming week's practices.
They'll start slowly at first, hoping to be ready for full-speed participation by the Packers' third preseason game, August 15, at Cleveland. Before that point, Sherman plans to exercise caution and hold them out.
"I don't want to play them in the first two (preseason games) for obvious reasons," Sherman said. "The (artificial turf) surface is one of them. Time from their injuries is another.
"They may get some time, depending on how they feel, in that third preseason game. It won't be much, just get them out there."
Until they're ready to go, Clifton and Tauscher can expect a heavy diet of comparatively low-impact drills. How they handle those will determine their readiness to move on.
At this point neither player has experienced any setbacks in their rehab, but now isn't the time to break the trend.
"I don't want to present them many opportunities in practice right now where they're going into an uncharted move by a defender," Sherman said. "I don't mind them practicing and working with (offensive line coach Larry Beightol) on some bag stuff, but to all of a sudden plant and redirect and react to somebody could put undue stress on these players before I want to."
When healthy, the Packers' front five of Clifton, guard Mike Wahle, center Mike Flanagan, guard Marco Rivera and Tauscher, form one of the most formidable units in the NFL. Even with the injuries to Clifton and Tauscher, the Packers' O-line helped the offense rush for 120.8 yards per game last year, more than any Green Bay team in 17 years.
But if either tackle isn't ready by the season opener, the Packers are hopeful they have enough depth to get by.
Then a rookie, Kevin Barry started the final three regular season games at right tackle last season and drew positive reviews. At left tackle, the Packers have spent the offseason working with third-year pro Jerry Wisne.
Reggie Coleman also was added for depth at right tackle, with sixth-round draft pick Brennan Curtin looking to put his 6-foot-9 frame to good use on the left side.
An always-available option would be to move Flanagan out to tackle, where he filled in admirably for eight starts last season, including playoffs. But Sherman has indicated that he would move Flanagan from center only as a last resort.
With the regular season opener only seven weeks away, predicting the Packers' starting tackles for that game remains a challenge. Given the severity of their injuries, it's certainly difficult to imagine both Clifton and Tauscher being fully ready by that time.
But then it once was just as hard to think that they'd be ready at all right now.