Slimmer Harrell faces hefty expectations

When he is activated next week, there will be no breaking-in period for last year's No. 1 pick. Because the Packers are so short-handed at defensive tackle, Harrell will be expected to make an impact immediately.

There's less of Justin Harrell these days. The expectations, however, couldn't be bigger.

With his face dripping with perspiration after another lengthy workout as he recovers from a second round of back surgery on Aug. 25, Harrell is considerably slimmer than the man who showed up out of shape to offseason workouts.

"Wooh, probably close to about 15 or 20 (pounds)," Harrell said Wednesday when asked how much weight he's shed.

The weight on his shoulders, however, is immense. With Harrell spending the first six weeks of this season on the physically unable to perform list — he can rejoin the active roster after Sunday's game at Seattle — the Packers entered the season with Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and Colin Cole as the only true defensive tackles. The situation worsened when starting end Cullen Jenkins, who moved to tackle on passing downs, sustained a season-ending injury at Tampa Bay in Week 4.

So, Harrell won't have the luxury of being eased into things. Not with the massive Pickett playing more snaps than he's ever played in his career and the lack of depth playing a role in the Packers yielding a next-to-last 5.1 yards per rush.

"He doesn't have time. When he's back, he's in," defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn said on Thursday. "He's in the mix. He's plugged right in."

Harrell says he's been feeling "great" since the second back surgery, and could have began practicing earlier if not for the PUP rules that keep a player sidelined for six weeks.

Harrell has stayed low-key during his absence. Wednesday's interview was his first since training camp, and his teammates haven't seen him in the locker room, either. And, due to PUP rules, Harrell is not permitted in team meetings, so it's almost as if he's been in exile.

So, while he knows he's needed — desperately — Harrell is awaiting his roster activation for a more selfish reason.

"I think it's more that I can't wait to get back, because I love playing the game of football," Harrell said.

Harrell says his back is feeling a "whole ton" better. He hurt it while lifting weights in the spring — and disputes that being out of shape had something to do with it — and had surgery in May. Because his recovery plateaued, Harrell never practiced in training camp and needed to go under the knife again to remove some bone fragments.

"We were dealing with some things that weren't major problems but was more nagging," Harrell said. "Once we got the second opinion and went and got that taken care of, I haven't had any pain whatsoever since the second surgery."

Harrell says he's been going through "intense" workouts to get ready for his presumed season debut against Indianapolis next week, and about the only thing he hasn't done is tackle someone. Of course, as Nunn said, there's a "lot of difference" between being in shape and being in football shape.

"He seems to be doing pretty well," Nunn said. "We haven't been able to get our hands on him as far as coaches, but everything that comes out of the training room and weight room are positive, and looking him in the eye, he looks as good as he's looked."

Just how much can be gained from Harrell's return is a matter of debate, though having a fresh body to work into the rotation will be important.

"He's going to help us out tremendously, just having another body to help us out with the pass and the run," said Pickett, who's used to playing about 30 snaps per game but has topped 50 a couple times this season. "The way we go now, there's only three of us, so there's always somebody ... if you are winded, you've got to push through it."

Problem is, Harrell has missed so much time that he's clearly far behind the others. Harrell missed organized team activities last year while recovering from a torn biceps suffered during his senior season at Tennessee. Because of the rust, he didn't make his season debut until Oct. 7 against Chicago, then injured an ankle during a practice a couple of weeks later, which kept him out for another month.

In all, he played in nine games (including playoffs), and for as much as the "bust" word has been thrown around, he showed flashes of talent with a nine-tackle performance in a late-season loss at Chicago.

"He was really starting to improve when he got hurt in practice right in the middle of the season," Nunn said. "He was taking off. Then he got hurt, and that really was a major setback for him. At the end of the year, he was coming, but still not where you want him. So, it was a tough year."

Any steps forward from last year, however, were followed with steps backward this year, when the back surgery kept Harrell out of OTAs, training camp and the preseason.

So, the Packers are in a position where they are relying on Harrell, but haven't a clue if he'll be up to the task immediately or how good he can be if he finally can stay healthy for more than a month at a time.

"It's hard to tell. We haven't been able to see how good he can be," Nunn said. "He's a talented young man. A big body who can move, but at this level, you've got to be seen."

This time, Harrell hopes, it will be different. The back feels better, and he's not worried what two rounds of back surgery will mean for his long-term well-being, much less his football career.

"The type of surgery I had, just talking to the back specialist, it's not like you're going out and moving discs, just reconstructing your whole back," Harrell said. "There wasn't no muscles cut or anything like that. As far as my back breaking down, I got reassured that this is not going to be a problem that would cause me not to play the game of football."

Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and E-mail him at

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