Expectations are a funny thing.
As a first-round pick in 2007, big things were expected from Justin Harrell. He failed to get even close to those expectations.
Because of offseason back surgery, expectations were much more modest for Harrell entering last season. He failed to meet even those because he needed a second round of surgery.
The bar was lowered even further for this year. Even coach Mike McCarthy said his expectations were for Harrell to get himself healthy. Never mind crack the starting lineup or be an impact player. Just show up on a daily basis.
So far, Harrell is exceeding those expectations.
With first-round pick B.J. Raji holding out and veteran Johnny Jolly out with an injured ankle, Harrell has moved into the starting lineup. He's not just keeping the seat warm for Raji but actually being somewhat of a force on the practice field. And the coaches have taken notice.
"Justin's a bigger guy," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who has sung Harrell's praises for the last couple of months, said after Thursday morning's practice. "He's not the guy that's going to make the big explosive plays that some of the other guys have a chance to make because they're faster than he is. But he's doing his job out there and that's what we need him to continue to do."
Generally, Harrell's opportunities will come on running downs. At 322 pounds, Harrell has slimmed down but added strength under the guise of strength and conditioning coach Dave Redding. Between that and the help of a chiropractor, Harrell is feeling better and feeling more confident.
"It's like I'm starting over," the newlywed says with a grin.
And for good reason. Harrell was injured from the moment he entered the NFL and has never really been healthy. There was the torn biceps suffered during his senior season at Tennessee — an injury he played through so he could face rival Florida the next week, by the way. Surgery for that injury didn't allow Harrell to participate in the Packers' offseason program as a rookie. When he finally got on the field, a sprained ankle took him off the field again.
Then there was the debacle that was 2008, with Harrell injuring his back while lifting weights. Harrell again missed the offseason program, and when the pain never subsided, he needed more surgery, which kept him out for the first half of the season.
In his two years, he's played in 13 of a possible 32 games.
This spring, for the first time in his pro career, Harrell took part in organized team activities and minicamp. The new coaches came in with no preconceived notions about Harrell's painful history, and his play during the first week of camp has won their praise. But with his injury history, and with Raji going to eventually sign and Jolly getting closer to being ready, Harrell knows he can't rest on these meager laurels if he has designs on becoming a core player on this defense.
"If they're saying good things about me, that's always good, but you can't get comfortable and you can't get complacent," Harrell said. "It's the first week of training camp so it's still a long way to go. Every day you're out there, you've just got to go out there and work."
Harrell has done that. The intense Trgovac never lets Harrell — or any of the other linemen, for that matter — coast through a drill or a play. He's been a big reason why the offense has struggled to run the ball on a daily basis.
"A lot of times, what you're going to see out of us, you're not going to see a lot of big plays out of us like you will the inside and outside linebackers," Trgovac said. "Justin's done a nice job. I've just got to keep him going. He's done a good job out there. The scrimmages and preseason games will tell, but he's done an excellent job."
Of course, all of this praise comes with one giant caveat. The Packers drafted Raji because they needed a defensive lineman. And why did they need a defensive lineman? Because Harrell hasn't produced and, so far, hasn't proved he can be relied upon. Harrell doesn't pretend he hasn't heard the criticism, and it seems like even he's unsure about himself.
"With a back, you never know," he said. "You can wake up one morning and it just doesn't feel like going. It's one of those things you can't control. Just take it one day at a time.
"It's always in the back of your mind. But the farther back you can put it, that's better for you. You can just go out there and worry about playing football and not really worry about the injuries. It's when you start playing not to get hurt, that's when you end up getting hurt. Just trying to go out there full speed and do what you can do."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.