Harrell Hoping To Add Depth On D-Line

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The Packers' defensive line has been one of the positions hit hardest by injuries so far this season, but it could soon be receiving a boost from a player getting close to returning to action.

Second-year defensive tackle Justin Harrell, who has been on the physically unable to perform list for the first five games following two offseason back surgeries, will be eligible to practice with the team next week.

The team will then have three weeks to put him on the active roster or place him on injured reserve, but Harrell said Wednesday that he is pain-free and ready to get back out on the field.

With Cullen Jenkins, who started the first four games at right defensive end and also moved inside on passing downs, being placed on season-ending injured reserve Oct. 1 with a torn pectoral, the Packers have only three true defensive tackles on the roster in starters Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly and backup Colin Cole. Defensive ends Jason Hunter and Michael Montgomery, who have the ability to move inside, are also currently battling injuries.

"With the injuries we had, people have been shifting around and coming in and trying to learn things a lot faster than what it normally takes," Harrell said. "It definitely is motivation for me to get out there and help because I have been here for a year and I pretty much know the system.

"If I can take some reps off of Jolly and 'Grease' (Pickett), those guys will be a little fresher in the fourth quarter and hopefully we all can finish ballgames a little better."

The Packers have struggled against the run early this season, allowing 161.4 yards per game (27th in the NFL), compared to 102.9 yards per game in '07, and 5.14 yards per carry (31st in the league), almost a yard above the league average. After only allowing three running backs to rush for 100-plus yards in '07, Green Bay has already seen four backs hit that mark against them in the first five games.

"That will be great when he comes back, as far as just having another body that's good, physical, can play the run," Pickett said. "It's going to help us with our rotation, help us stay fresh, because we've been playing a lot of plays.

"I'm not accustomed to playing as many plays as I've been playing, so it's definitely going to be good to get a fourth D-lineman on the roster so we can have a good, balanced rotation."

Harrell initially sustained the back injury lifting weights in March during the opening week of offseason workouts at Lambeau Field. He had surgery in April to trim down a disc that was putting pressure on a nerve.

Harrell said that following the first procedure he was still experiencing pain in his back and lower buttocks, but he has not had any pain since the second surgery done in August to clean out some disc fragments.

"When you come out of an operation and you start doing things and you're not feeling any pain at all, that's uplifting because then you can focus on being in the best shape you can be and make sure you are ready to play," Harrell said.

That hard work is evidenced by Harrell's weight of 310 pounds now after playing last season between 320 and 325.

"Just looking at the film and kind of looking at some of my college tape, I just liked the way I played when I was a lot lighter," Harrell said. "That was one of my goals was to make sure I got all of that extra weight from not doing anything and just recovering from the surgeries off, and make sure I was in the best shape I could be when I got back."

Since the August surgery Harrell has spent his days working with strength and conditioning coordinator Rock Gullickson, assistant strength and conditioning coach Mark Lovat and assistant athletic trainer Bryan Engel. He lifts weights with Gullickson four days a week, does conditioning for an hour with Lovat during practice and then does treatment and rehab with Engel.

"His effort and his attitude have been excellent," Gullickson said. "He has shown very steady progress. He has to jump through a lot of hoops to complete his day of physical activity, but is gaining confidence with each week that goes by.

"I would say he's closing in on 90 percent of the high strength level he has been at before, and I know his endurance and his work capacity have increased immensely with that much work that is asked of him on a regular basis."

A big test for Harrell will be when he tests his back with full contact on the field, which Gullickson said Lovat and Engel have done their best to simulate.

{sportsad300}"They are putting his pads on and having him hit sleds and do some things that are as close as possible to getting out there in live action," Gullickson said. "It's going to take him getting out on the practice field and getting up to speed that way. That's the last hurdle he has to cross."

For Harrell, battling injuries is unfortunately something he has become accustomed to during his first two seasons in the NFL. As a rookie in '07 he missed mini-camps and OTAs as a precaution as he recovered from a torn bicep suffered during his senior season at Tennessee, and he missed five games after sustaining an ankle injury during an Oct. 23 practice.

"It was tough, but I knew being down and worrying about it wasn't going to change the whole situation," Harrell said. "I just tried to take a positive outlook and did everything I could to make sure that I was healthy.

"Any time you are injured it is hard because you see these guys every day and they are out there working hard. They go out on Sundays and perform and all you are doing is pretty much watching and doing what you can on the side."

Even though Harrell's involvement with the team has been limited to working out with the strength staff and attending meetings, he said the support of teammates and coaches has helped him stay connected during this challenging time.

"We're a family here and we see each other every day," Harrell said. "We spend more time with each other then we do with our families, so it was never a thing where people were talking negatively to me in the locker room.

"You need that, just guys asking you how you are doing and when you're going to be back. It just gives you some encouragement and some more motivation."

Harrell showed some flashes last season of what the Packers saw when they drafted him in the first round of the 2007 draft. He started for an injured Pickett in Week 16 at Chicago and posted a career-high nine tackles, and he started the regular-season finale vs. Detroit the next week and registered five stops. Harrell also played in both playoff games and made four tackles against Seattle in the Divisional playoff.

Harrell said he is well aware of the expectations that come along with being a first-round pick, but he is focused on staying healthy and contributing.

"Ever since the injury first occurred, I've been looking forward to getting back out on the field and being a part of this team again," Harrell said. "I'm getting excited. It's been a long six weeks.

"You don't want to start the season off like this but it happened. I just tried to make the best out of it, and now that window is about to get opened and we're going to see what happens from there."

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