Hightower has spent the last 10 months working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and hopes to contend for Washington’s starting running back duties. He resumed running and cutting back in the spring, and during the first three weeks of training camp was restricted primarily to position drills.
On Aug. 16, Hightower went through 11-on-11 drills while running the scout team during a pad-free session, and did so again on Monday. He missed Tuesday’s practice to attend the funeral of his grandfather, and then practiced in pads for the first time on Wednesday.
“Well, he’s made some strides, but it’s really hard to tell until he goes full-speed,” Shanahan said on Wednesday. “Once you put the pads on, it’s different than going in shorts. I think tomorrow will be a good indication on how he feels. It’s the first day he’s actually had contact around our first, second, third team offense and ran our plays.”
Hightower last season started five games, recording 84 carries for 321 yards and a touchdown. On Oct. 23, he was on pace to have his best game of the season — carrying the ball 17 times for 88 yards before tearing his ACL early in the third quarter.
He is one of two potential starters trying to overcome injury to contend for the lead role in Washington’s offense. Second-year pro Roy Helu Jr. has been sidelined by tendinitis in both Achilles’ tendons. On Wednesday, he went through position drills for the first time in more than a week.
But Shanahan declined to say which back was further ahead in his quest to return to the field.
“I can’t tell you right now. Neither one can play right now.”
The only healthy veteran is second-year pro Evan Royster, who through two preseason games has rushed for 41 yards on nine carries. Rookie Alfred Morris has recorded 88 yards on 25 carries this preseason.
Shanahan still hasn’t ruled out hope of Hightower and Helu returning in time to open the season as the starter, however.
“You never know, they could be fine by the first game,” the coach said. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”