METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints began their pre-practice stretch Wednesday, wide receiver Lance Moore hopped up, looked over at linebacker Jonathan Vilma and hollered, "Glad you're back! We missed you!" while the entire team offered a round of applause.
"Hello!" Vilma responded with a smile, still seated on the field, one leg pulled over another.
Vilma then did something he had yet to do in 2012: practice.
And it was obvious the Saints were pulling for Vilma to be ready to play this Sunday in Tampa Bay, which might be his only chance to get back on the field this season if his season-long bounty suspension, currently on appeal, winds up going back into effect in a week or so.
"Vilma continues to fight for what's right and a fair process, which I think is extremely justified," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "The fact that he was out there practicing today, it just kind of puts a smile on everybody's face knowing what he's been through and having the opportunity to get him back."
Vilma didn't work with the first team, but he also didn't wear any kind of brace or sleeve on his surgically repaired left knee, which has been another obstacle to his return.
"He's back," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He's doing a bunch of extra stuff, too, to make sure he's ready as far as conditioning and things like that. But he's ready to play. I know he's been champing at the bit, and this is his opportunity this week, and I know he'll be ready."
Because of his rehabilitation, Vilma was placed on the Saints' physically unable to perform list when his initial suspension was lifted, a move that saved the team a roster spot and also prevented the linebacker from practicing or playing during the first six weeks of the regular season.
"Having him on the sideline when he wasn't suited up was one thing," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "Now, suited up, ready to go, maybe get some plays here and there ... It's definitely good to have him out there. He's always been that energy on the defensive side of the ball that we needed."
For the past four seasons, Vilma was a defensive captain and starting middle linebacker, making all the defensive calls on the field. Now the Saints have a new defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Vilma now has practiced in the scheme only once, although he has been numerous defensive meetings.
"He's been the leader of the defense," linebacker Curtis Lofton added. "Having him back out there, seeing his face, seeing him in pads knowing everything he's been through and is going through and worked so hard to come back on the football field, it adds extra energy. Guys are excited, and I'm excited to play with him."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press