Defensive tackle Brandon Noble blended in yesterday among 11 defensive linemen who lined up for drills at the start of Joe Gibbs's third minicamp. Wearing a black brace on his left leg, the 6-foot-2, 304-pounder zigged and zagged like a burly ballerina around several inflated burgundy bags during an agility drill.
Next, Noble and teammates leaped over the bags as defensive coordinator Greg Blache -- the de facto defensive line coach -- watched intently. Finally, they lined up in a three-point stance for a hand drill, forcefully pushing a blocking dummy. With white tape on his knuckles, Noble gave one of the most powerful shoves.
Noble's participation in the individual drills was no different than in Gibbs's first two minicamps. And teammates considered that remarkable, considering Noble dislocated his left kneecap and tore two ligaments last preseason. The injury was so severe that Noble was forced to relearn walking.
Yesterday, Noble went beyond drills, lining up for eight of Gibbs's 32 plays during a 90-minute practice. Although Noble showed rust during his first plays in nearly a year, it was an auspicious sign toward full recovery.
"It felt good. It was a relief almost to get out there and do those first couple of plays," said Noble, whose goal is to start in the Sept. 12 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Just like it will be a relief the first time I go in full gear, the first time I play a game."
The seven-year veteran was so enthused about his practice debut that he was the first player at Redskins Park yesterday, arriving at 6:45 a.m. and heading to the training room, where he plopped into the hot tub to kill time.
The Redskins made revamping the defensive line a priority this offseason. Two of Washington's first signings were tackle Cornelius Griffin and lineman Phillip Daniels. Griffin is expected to play left tackle, but without Noble the Redskins have no clear-cut, starting nose tackle. (Daniels can play tackle, but Blache projects him as an end.) The other candidates are Joe Salave'a, rookie Norman Heuer and possibly Jermaine Haley.
Noble "has a ways to go, but the fact that he is out here, with the type of injury he had, is incredible," Blache said yesterday. "It's a credit to him, to the doctors and the training staff. A lot of guys wouldn't come back from that."
Noble suffered the injury on Aug. 16 in a 20-13 preseason loss to New England when his left leg became entangled under two Patriots and then-teammate Bruce Smith. Noble, who tore the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments, was placed on the injured reserve for the rest of the season, and his career was believed to be in jeopardy.
"I'm sure everybody wrote him off last year," left defensive end Renaldo Wynn said yesterday. " 'Hey this guy's not going to be back.' "
Noble, who before last season had played in every game of his NFL career, was forced to wait for the swelling to subside before surgery in early October. After the operation, doctors told Noble he had a good chance to continue his NFL career if he undertook an excruciating rehabilitation.
Noble started by using a machine several hours a day to help him regain his range of motion. Because he lost substantial muscle -- "I didn't have much of a leg left" -- he lifted weights to strengthen his quadriceps muscle. Starting last November, he underwent a three-hour regimen six times a week at Redskins Park. His biggest task was learning how to walk again, first by using crutches, before jogging. "He's worked himself silly trying to get back," Gibbs said.
After letting go tackles Daryl Gardener and Dan Wilkinson, the Redskins started the season with the self-described "no-name" defensive tackles. Without Noble, they lived up to that moniker. Tailbacks rushed for at least 100 yards seven times, including the Cowboys' Troy Hambrick, who churned out 189 on Dec. 14. Asked if he would have made a difference on a defense that ranked 25th in the 32-team league, Noble said modestly, "I'm a nose guard. It's not like I'm a 10-sack guy."
The Redskins signed Noble in 2002 because of his ability to stop the run and occupy blockers, allowing linebackers to make plays.
"He'll never really look pretty," Blache said, "but he'll make people around him pretty."
After just one preseason game, Wynn realized Noble's ability to read formations and quickly relay information to linemates.
"He's a guy that can tip you off to a play," Wynn said, "before it comes."
Defensive linemen knew Noble was on his way back last month when they underwent a run test to evaluate conditioning. Unlike a few of them, Noble passed the test.
"If anybody is going to overcome that injury it's him," Haley recalled. "He's a true professional."
Noble has his own test in mind to determine when he will be truly back: "The first goal-line stand," he said, smiling.