GREEN BAY, Wisconsin – Packers linebacker Nate Palmer ran to his right, then spun back to his left, then back to his right.
Each time Palmer took a step, Marian Central grad Bryan Bulaga was a step ahead of him. As the drill continued on the first day of Packers training camp on Saturday, Bulaga's teammates cheered him on.
This was Bulaga, in his element, comfortable and agile. Strong and in control.
It's been awhile.
Since mid-2012, the former first round pick out of Iowa has spent the bulk of his time in rehab. First it was a hip injury. Then, when that rehab was complete, he tore his ACL just less than a year ago at the Packers' Family Night practice.
As he stood in the Packers' locker room and the media horde approached, the Crystal Lake native took another step toward his return, speaking with the media for the first time in 2014.
For much of the last year, Bulaga has been doing his rehab work in private, at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida.
He lost weight in order to relieve the pressure put on his surgically repaired knee. Then, when he felt comfortable on it, Bulaga gained back that weight and then some.
He says he's stronger and just as fast, bigger yet just as agile.
Bulaga is entering the fifth and final season of his rookie contract, and on a day when teammate Jordy Nelson signed a large four-year extension, Bulaga wasn't ready to discuss when his next contract would be signed. Instead, he deflected the question in the same way Packers coach Mike McCarthy likes to deflect contract questions.
“That's a whole different department that takes care of that stuff,” Bulaga said. “It's really not on my mind.”
He said he's focused on getting comfortable playing next to guard T.J. Lang on a veteran offensive line. When Bulaga last started in 2012, it was next to Josh Sitton, who now plays left guard.
To get familiar with each other, Bulaga and Lang chatted between plays. And he said the same goes on in the film room.
“We watch (the play) on tape and talk it out,” Bulaga said. “Then I can understand what he was thinking to a certain look and he knows what you are thinking.”
That cohesiveness doesn't just happen. It's built. And the next month, before the Packers open the NFL season at Seattle on Sept. 4, are about regaining that comfort level. He said there is “no disappointment or anything like that” about his move back to the right side after being projected as the team's starting left tackle before the ACL tear.
He's just happy to be back playing after so much time in rehab.
“It's difficult,” Bulaga said. “A year and a half of something you love to do being taken away, it mentally wears on you. It's good to have my wife and family around a bunch to help me get through it. But, in the end it's got to be you that has to mentally push through it and want to get better and want to get back.”
Moving back to right tackle also means Bulaga will be matched up in practice plenty with Packers free agent signee Julius Peppers, who spent the past four seasons with the Bears.
“He's absolutely one of the best that has ever played,” Bulaga said. “He is a big strong guy, fast. It's only going to benefit me.”
And it means Bulaga will have to push off his surgically repaired left knee on each play. Bulaga called things “iffy” when he initially returned to the field but has now regained his comfort level.
It's a process, like everything, but he doesn't feel sorry for himself and his bad injury luck of late.
“Injuries happen,” Bulaga said. “It's unfortunate it happened back to back for me. But that's the risk we all take.”