Third-year linebacker Abdul Hodge is back on the practice field this week for the first time since training camp last year, and the former third-round draft choice says his troublesome knees are in their best shape since his junior season at the University of Iowa.
"I'm probably 110 percent now," Hodge said. "I feel like a new man."
Hodge spent all of last season on injured reserve when the patellar tendonitis in his knees flared up badly during the final stages of training camp. He had been bothered by knee troubles at times during his rookie season of 2006, and during his final year at Iowa.
Upon going on IR at the end of training camp last year, Hodge decided to have surgery on both knees, and he returned to the practice field for the first time during Wednesday's OTA.
"It's actually exciting to me now," Hodge said. "I can just line up, run to the football and react and use my instincts and do the things I've been known to do. I'm not restricted now, so I can just go all out and play."
During Thursday's public workout, Hodge worked as the middle linebacker with the No. 2 defense, while second-year pro Desmond Bishop was in the middle with the starters in place of Nick Barnett, who was absent.
Hodge said for the first time in his career he feels like he'll be able to show the "real me" to the coaching staff, and he's putting all the frustration with his knees behind him as he battles now and into training camp for a roster spot.
"It's nice to see him bouncing around like he did in his rookie year," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "I know he's very relieved after what he's gone through over the past year or so."
McCarthy announced that defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila likely will be out until training camp after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Thursday.
"It's something that's been bothering him throughout the offseason," McCarthy said. The team's medical staff thought it would be better to take care of the problem sooner rather than later.
Gbaja-Biamila's injury, combined with a thin defensive tackle rotation already missing Johnny Jolly (shoulder), Colin Cole (forearm), Justin Harrell (back) and Daniel Muir (pectoral), has led to a lot of shifting on the defensive line during OTAs.
The versatile Cullen Jenkins, normally a starter at end, has been working with the No. 1 unit at tackle, while Michael Montgomery and rookie fourth-round pick Jeremy Thompson were both taking starters' reps at end.
On the offensive line, tackle Tony Moll is out with a sprained knee, though he could return to the field as soon as next week. Left tackle Chad Clifton was in attendance but also did not practice on Thursday.
As a result, Orrin Thompson was working with the No. 1 unit at left tackle.
In the house
Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson has been practicing with the team this week. McCarthy said Woodson has been around more this past offseason than the previous year, working out at the team facility during February and early March, before the offseason program officially started.
Woodson's counterpart, cornerback Al Harris, has not yet made an appearance at OTAs, but McCarthy said he expects him to participate in the voluntary workouts at some point. He did not have specifics on Harris' plans.
A parting gift
The Packers have replaced the "Favre" nameplate above the legendary quarterback's locker with a generic "Packers" one, but the locker itself will soon be on its way to Favre himself.
The team is planning to remove the actual locker following the mandatory mini-camp in mid-June and give it to Favre, and then have a new locker installed prior to training camp in late July.
"It's frankly an excellent idea that Ted Thompson and the organization had as far as a gift on a personal note to Brett," McCarthy said. "It's really a construction concern, is the reason why the locker hasn't been taken out of there (yet). There's really nothing more to it.
"I thought it's a classy move, and something that definitely reflects how the Green Bay Packers do business and how they appreciate what Brett Favre has done in his career."
During training camp and the regular season, the Packers dedicate one practice period to what McCarthy calls "screens and deceptives," namely screen passes and other misdirection plays.
But with the inconsistencies in the offense's screen game over the past two years, McCarthy has added a screen period to the OTAs for the first time, with all the running backs catching their share of passes out of the backfield.
"It's a fundamental play," McCarthy said. "There's a lot of fundamental teaching, recognition, identifying the distribution of the blockers, and the coordination with the back and the quarterback. We just have to emphasize and keep practicing."
Big plays on both sides
Twice during team periods on Thursday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit tight end Donald Lee in stride on a seam route down the middle. Rodgers and Lee beat the defense by connecting on throws perfectly placed between the linebackers covering in front and the safeties closing from behind.
The second of the two big plays was in a red zone drill and resulted in a touchdown from about 16 yards out.
Not to be outdone, the defense came up with a big play of its own when Rodgers tried to hit Ruvell Martin on an out route. Linebacker A.J. Hawk stepped into the passing lane and leaped to snare the ball for an interception. Had it been live tackling, only one or two players would have had a chance to stop Hawk from returning the pick for a touchdown.
The Packers have three coaching interns for 2008 who are with the team during OTAs and will remain with the team through the mandatory mini-camp and into the start of training camp.
Assisting the offensive staff is Ricky Brumfield, the wide receivers coach at Fairmont State (W.Va.). Brumfield is in his third year in the NFL minority coaching program.
Assisting the defensive staff are John Rushing and Curtis Fuller. Rushing is the cornerbacks coach at Utah State, while Fuller is a former NFL safety who played for the Packers in 2003 and 2004.