By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
The Washington Redskins' first-string left tackle, at least for one day, came off the field lugging the shoulder pads of teammates Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen. It's a chore normally reserved for those at the bottom of the depth chart, and that's precisely where tackle Stephon Heyer found himself hours before yesterday's practice.
But by 4 p.m. Heyer, an undrafted rookie out of Maryland, was handed the critical chore of blocking quarterback Jason Campbell's blind side with Pro Bowler Chris Samuels out a month with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, a decision that shocked everyone -- including Heyer. Coach Joe Gibbs cautioned, however, that he expects players to rotate in and out of Samuels's role, and other team sources said privately that they would be floored if Heyer actually manned such a vital position in a preseason game.
Less than a week into training camp, the Redskins already find themselves juggling personnel because of injuries. Tailback Clinton Portis missed practice yesterday after his knee tendinitis returned ("It got agitated, it got a little swelling," said Gibbs, who believes it is a minor setback), while Thomas (knee), the right guard, participated in the early stages of practice in full pads but is not cleared for full drills.
With Samuels and Thomas watching, Heyer received heavy work at tackle, while journeymen Jason Fabini and Will Whitticker filled in at right guard. Todd Wade, a natural tackle who was the early favorite to replace departed starter Derrick Dockery at left guard, shuffled between the first and second team yesterday, but coaches resisted the temptation to move Wade back to the edge in an effort to get him as many reps as possible at his new position.
"We've got a number of combinations we're going to try, and we'll kind of see how it goes," Gibbs said. "We gave a lot of work to a lot of different guys on the left side and it's a challenge for us. But we really got good news [Monday] night, and hopefully Chris will be back before four weeks."
Samuels, who suffered a grade two sprain of the MCL during Monday afternoon's practice, will not need surgery, team sources said, and will rest and do rehabilitation instead. Team physician Ray Thall examined Samuels, who underwent an MRI exam Monday. The team's best estimate of recovery time is four weeks, but there is no exact timetable and it seems likely he could miss all four preseason games.
Thomas said he was eager to get back on the field by yesterday and will gradually increase his workload heading into Saturday's scrimmage at Baltimore. "I would love to scrimmage, but will they let me?" Thomas said. "I don't know. I'm going to take one practice at a time."
Wade could still switch back to tackle, said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach and offensive line coach, and several players and coaches said privately last season that they believed Wade as a reserve tackle outperformed several starting linemen in practice. The urge to use Wade to protect Campbell's blind side could become greater as preseason games approach, and so far the other experienced reserve tackle in camp, Fabini (a 10-year veteran) has been ineffective, although ample time remains.
"Before I would push Wade out there [to tackle], I'd probably put Fabini out there," Bugel said. "Fabini in [organized team activities] played right tackle and left tackle, then we had a shortage of guards so I put him at guard."
In the interim, the Heyer experiment continues. As of 1:30 yesterday, Heyer figured he would still be working with the third team, then got word of the promotion, however brief it may be. A year ago, Bugel and the Redskins were high on a couple of undrafted linemen as well; after a brief stint with the first team, they were cut.
"First and foremost we want to make sure that Jason Campbell is in a position where the people surrounding him are able to do the job we need them to do," said Al Saunders, associate head coach-offense. "I'm sure by the time we get to preseason whoever is playing the left tackle position will be adequate."
Heyer, who stands 6 feet 6 and weighs 325 pounds, will get a chance to participate with the first-team offensive line Saturday, said Bugel, who is eager to get a look at him in something approximating game action, with a necessary caveat: "I'm glad it's a scrimmage -- they can't tackle the quarterback," Bugel said. Giving Heyer first crack at Samuels's spot could be construed as a message to the older linemen in camp as well, but regardless of intent the rookie is overjoyed.
"It was tough today, but I think I came up and showed up a little bit," Heyer said. "It's a different world now. I got more reps than I kind of asked for, but I like the opportunity, and I think it's a great opportunity."