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So Far, So Good For Harrell

Defensive end Justin Harrell nearly made it through all four weeks of OTAs and this week's mini-camp without missing any practice time, until some sort of cold or flu bug struck him the other day, forcing him to sit out Tuesday's afternoon practice in the scorching heat.

But if that's the worst malady to befall Harrell in 2009, he'll take it as a blessing.

Beset by injuries to his bicep, ankle, back and hip throughout his first two seasons in the NFL, the former first-round draft pick finally got to participate in a full offseason program over these last few months. That has put him in the best position of his young career to have a productive training camp and make himself a valuable, contributing member of the defensive-line rotation this season.

"It's been huge, just going through all this," Harrell said. "It's added reps, especially putting in a new defense and things like that. It's one of those things where you want to be out there until you can get comfortable with the techniques and all those things.

"It's kind of like a dress rehearsal for when training camp starts, so you have some kind of knowledge of what you're supposed to be doing when you get out there."

Harrell hasn't had nearly this extensive a rehearsal before. He missed all the spring work his rookie season while still recovering from surgery on the torn biceps sustained during his senior season at the University of Tennessee. Then he was out all the way through OTAs last year with back problems that stayed with him during the regular season and eventually required multiple procedures and led to the hip troubles.

But rest, recovery and rehab, combined with some help from acupuncture, healed his back in time to allow him to get all the on-field work (except Tuesday) over the past five weeks. With Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji and Johnny Jolly ahead of him on the depth chart at the moment, Harrell got most of his work lately with the No. 2 defense, though he did get some reps with the 1's earlier during OTAs.

But work is work, especially for a player limited to just 13 games and 37 tackles over a span of two seasons. And the way his body held up, Harrell sees no reason why he won't be ready for the first full-contact practice of training camp on Aug. 1.

"We got to the point where the back wasn't bothering me at all, and that was really the big steppingstone," Harrell said. "Just going through all this and not having any flare-ups or things like that, that's another level of confidence I can take with me.

"Now it's about putting pads on, going out there and tackling and playing football. Just going through all this stuff, I feel confident and we'll see what happens."

Confident enough that he won't be thinking about his back the first time he's locked in a leverage battle with an offensive lineman, or the first time he takes a hit from a pulling guard?

"It might be (difficult until) the first hit, because you really just don't know how it's going to do," he said. "But after that you have to put all that stuff in the back of your head and just go out there and play. Because when you play tentative and things like that, that's when more injuries occur."

That's the last thing Harrell wants, or can afford for the sake of his career. He's well aware of how crucial this third season is for him, and he's not oblivious to the fact that among some fans, patience is wearing thin and labels like "bust" are being thrown around.

Drafted as high as he was, No. 16 overall in 2007, Harrell was supposed to be a regular starter by now. He's far from that, but if he can stay on the field and be productive on a consistent basis in 2009, he may finally get a foundation upon which to build a pro career.

"A lot of people have been waiting a long time to see why they brought me here, why they drafted me," he said. "But when you start dealing with things like that, it takes away your focus from other things you need to concentrate on. I just take it one day at a time and just know when I'm here to work, I try to do the best I can."

As for the five-week break prior to training camp, Harrell said he's going to go on his honeymoon and then return to Green Bay about three weeks before camp begins to work with the trainers and strength coaches and make sure his body is ready for the rigors of camp.

Harrell has admitted before that he's had lapses in his conditioning, and whether those have contributed to his injury problems is debatable. But the bottom line is now he's as physically prepared as he ever has been for an NFL training camp, and he plans to make the most of it.

"You live and you learn," he said. "You just have to be smart, and make sure you've got a set program and follow it the best you can. You know you've got a job to do when you come back the first of August, and that's when all the real work starts."

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