This was what Terrance Knighton had wanted since early April.
He was practicing again, and if it will still be two days before he's practicing full – full pads, full contact, full out – the Jaguars' defensive tackle now has been cleared to do so later in the week.
That's the latest step – "a huge step," Knighton called it – toward being back where he wants to be: on the field with his teammates, in the middle of the defensive line, being the sort of player and leader his teammates have come to expect.
That step made Monday the best day Knighton said he has had in a while.
"It felt good," Knighton said Monday following the first of two Jaguars 2012 Training Camp practices at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields.
"I'm just ready to get on the pads and be fully participating, but I'm glad I could go through the drills and stuff with the guys. It's better than standing on the side and watching.
"I'm just blessed and happy to be activated up."
Knighton, a fourth-year veteran, was one of three players cleared to practice Monday after beginning training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The others cleared were guard Uche Nwaneri and tight end Zach Miller, while offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield, linebacker Clint Session and defensive end John Chick remain on the PUP list.
Under league rules, the three players activated can't practice full the first day back, then can only wear a helmet the second day (Tuesday). They can participate in pads on the third day (Wednesday).
Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said Knighton is a bit more ready than Miller and Nwaneri , with Knighton working in individual drills Monday and the other two moving to that step Tuesday. Mularkey said Knighton will be ready to work with the defense Wednesday.
Knighton had missed organized team activities and the team's mid-June minicamp after undergoing emergency eye surgery in early April.
"I think we're all surprised that with the extent of that injury, how well he's recovered," Mularkey said of Knighton.
Mularkey said the rules governing PUP are new, having been sent to teams on Friday, and if the rule had come down sooner the team might not have put the trio on the list.
"If we would have gotten the memo from the NFL prior to that we probably would not have done that," he said.
Would Knighton have preferred to be all the way back, pads and all? Yes, but he and his teammates said a day or two delay in that area can't overshadow the significance of – and the happiness they feel over – him being back not only sooner than anyone imagined less than four months ago, but in better shape than he has been in four NFL seasons.
Defensive end Jeremy Mincey was asked after practice Monday how significant it was for the defensive line and the defense to have Knighton back healthy and in shape.
"Very," Mincey said, then added: "Very, very, very, very, very . . ."
The reason, Mincey said, is that Knighton is more than a run-stuffing presence in the middle, and more than a good player who is a potential core player long-term for the defense.
"He's a young guy, but he's a young leader," Mincey said of Knighton. "He's very intelligent. He's a very smart football player. He's one of the guys I lean on, because he has real good football sense. His presence means a lot."
When discussing Knighton Monday, Mincey also touched on something that he said may be as significant as Knighton having a healthy eye – that is, that the 20 pounds Knighton lost in the weeks leading to training camp have him looking significantly different than last season.
Knighton had reported to each of the last two training camps overweight, but reported this year under 330 pounds for the first time in his NFL career.
"Did you see him on the bags?" Mincey said. "He looks great. He's going to be a force this year."
Indeed, one of the drills Knighton was permitted to participate in Monday was a pass-rushing drill early in the morning practice. Working against heavy bags, Knighton appeared significantly quicker and faster than last season.
Knighton said in this case looks weren't deceiving. He said he felt significantly different, which he said really isn't all that surprising.
"For a big guy like me, 20 pounds is a lot," he said. "It feels like taking luggage off your back. It's like running around with a book bag on, then taking it off. You feel a lot better."
Knighton said while his eye had made significant progress throughout the recovery process, it was important to remain patient. He said although he had expected throughout the offseason to be cleared early in camp, to actually be officially cleared was a significant moment.
"It's very significant," Knighton said. "Initially, they thought I was not only going to lose my vision, but lose my eyeball. I came a longways a lot quicker than I thought. I think about that every day.
"I'm a lot more focused. I don't take anything for granted now. I'm just going to continue to work hard. I can't do much now with them, because it's a process to putting on the pads, but I'll do as much as I can and go as hard as I can. . . .
"I've just got to focus on football. My eye's taking care of itself, so I just have to do the work and get back out there."