JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Wearing a brace on his right knee and feeling a little timid, guard Vince Manuwai returned to practice with the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday.
Even though he took just three snaps with the first-team offense, it was Manuwai's first full practice since tearing two knee ligaments more than nine months ago.
"It's not like they're trying to throw me in the fire," Manuwai said. "They're working me in. Am I anxious? Yeah, but I'm not trying to force it at the same time. I don't want nothing bad to happen. Part of it, too, is getting your mind right before the hitting and all that."
Manuwai, who tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee during last year's opener, was initially scheduled to be back at the start of training camp next month. But he dropped 30 pounds during his rehabilitation and showed enough leg strength and mobility that the training staff cleared him for the final week of organized team activities.
"I'm sure we'll be smart with him as he's coming back from a knee (injury), but he's been cleared to practice and that's the first step in the recovery process and him getting back to full speed as a dominant football player for us," coach Jack Del Rio said.
If Manuwai returns to form, Jacksonville's power running game could follow. With Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew splitting carries, the Jaguars were one of the best running teams in the league in 2006 and 2007. But several injuries along the line proved to be too much for Jacksonville to overcome last season.
Manuwai and fellow guard Maurice Williams (biceps) were placed on injured reserve following the first game. Starting center Brad Meester (biceps) missed most of training camp, all the preseason and the first six meaningful games. And backup tackle Richard Collier was shot and paralyzed just days before the opener.
Del Rio blamed the injuries on aging linemen and a poor offseason conditioning program. He fired the team's strength and conditioning coordinator and revamped the line through free agency and the draft.
But the key to getting the line back in shape might rest with Manuwai, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound Hawaiian who's been the team's best blocker the last few years.
"It's great to see him back," Del Rio said. "He's really worked hard in the weight room and he's proud of the fact that he's got his weight under control where we'd like it to be, and that's a big thing. Instead of fighting to get the weight in line, he can work on becoming a better football player.
"When you bring him back, you're bringing a Pro Bowl-caliber left guard back onto your football team, and that helps everybody."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press