They say all the fun starts when the pads come on in training camp, but that day will provide a little extra excitement for Andrew Datko.
That's because Datko, the offensive tackle whom the Packers drafted in the seventh round this year out of Florida State, has had a longer layoff without pads than most.
The last time he strapped them on was Sept. 24, 2011, in Clemson, S.C. That turned out to be his last collegiate game, as Datko's troublesome shoulder, re-injured the previous week against Oklahoma, couldn't hold up any longer.
So when the Packers put pads on for the first time this summer – currently scheduled to be Saturday, July 28, the third day of training camp – it will have been more than 10 months for Datko. Not that he's counting.
"The OTAs and minicamps really helped me," Datko said, as far as shaking the rust off. "Even though we weren't hitting, I could get my footwork and technique back. It's just combining the hitting with the technique. I'm really looking forward to getting back to it."
It's hard to blame Datko for that, considering how far back this shoulder problem goes. The shoulder initially popped out of place in high school and was surgically repaired. Then the same thing happened during training camp prior to his junior season at Florida State in 2010, but he played the entire year with it and had surgery again after the season.
Then last year, he admitted he tried to do too much, too soon. Inflammation began building up during camp, and over the season's first four games, it only got worse and Datko had to be shut down. The surgical repair from the previous season was intact, but he had to have the shoulder cleaned out.
Given all that, it would be understandable if Datko were a little apprehensive about putting pads on and hitting again, but he insists he's not. He feels better about the shoulder now than he has for at least a couple of years.
"Oh no, no, it will be good," he said. "I'll always have to wear my brace now, but that will protect it and it will be good to go."
Datko realizes the opportunity he has to make a strong first impression with the Packers. Despite Chad Clifton's release in the offseason, Datko was the only offensive lineman the Packers drafted. Undrafted rookies Shea Allard and Mike McCabe were also added at the tackle position, but third-year pros Marshall Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga are the only seasoned veterans at tackle, and 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod is coming back from a broken leg. The depth chart behind the starters is wide open.
A left tackle throughout his college career, Datko said he alternated on the right and left sides throughout OTAs and minicamp. He also got a taste of what he called "the big leagues," working with the first unit for a brief stretch when Newhouse was out.
"Working with the ones, you get to see how the best offense in the league works and get a feel for it," he said. "It was really awesome and the playbook is coming along really good."
His focus then was simple, and it will remain so moving forward.
"No missed assignments," he said. "The best quarterback in the league is sitting back there, and they have to trust you to protect him. You have to eliminate those mental breakdowns."
Current depth-chart status aside, Datko said he's approaching his rookie training camp with the idea of taking things one step at a time. The first is to make the 53-man roster. After that, making the gameday roster and becoming a starter are for down the road.
Very smartly, Datko also is not concerning himself with where he was drafted. His seventh-round tag probably means even less on him than others, because the general consensus was he'd have been drafted much higher if not for his injury history. Mike McCarthy said as much right after the Packers selected him.
"I know this team has a lot of late-round picks on their team and also (undrafted) free agents, so they look at those players," Datko said. "That's what builds the core of the team.
"You have to really work at it. You still have to go 100 percent, can't take any breaks."
If Datko can finally catch a break on the health front, he'll be worth watching once those pads go on.