Following the powerful late-season performance of the Jaguars running game in 2007, Vince Manuwai was poised to become one of the league's elite run-blocking offensive linemen last year. Then, in the first half of the season's first game, his season was over.
"I heard it tear. That hurt more than the feeling. When I walked, I could feel it was not stable," Manuwai said following a break in his rehab conditioning on Thursday.
Manuwai, the Jaguars' starting left guard since his rookie season in 2003, was injured in Tennessee when center Dennis Norman fell into Manuwai's right knee while engaged with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The sound told Manuwai all he needed to know: His season was over.
It's been six months since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in that knee. Manuwai has been cleared by doctors to begin the offseason conditioning program, which officially begins on April 6.
"I said I know I'll be ready when camp opens up," Manuwai said of a recent conversation he had with coach Jack Del Rio. "They already know I'm not going to take it all the way."
"Taking it all the way" is player lingo for "milking it." Manuwai is not going to milk his injury. That's not his style; never has been. He's played on a severely torn calf muscle and on a second-degree knee sprain. If Manuwai says he'll be ready for camp, you can believe him.
More importantly, the Jaguars need to believe him because his return is at the heart of the offensive line's recovery. The team's other starting guard, Mo Williams, was also lost for the season in last year's season opener; Williams sustained a torn biceps. Both players were hard at work on Thursday.
"I survived pretty long. This is the first surgery I've had from high school to now. I've watched on film and there were times when guys were close to falling into my knees. I'm trying to play without a brace. I try to play comfortable. That's going to be the challenge this year; not thinking about it as much," Manuwai said.
His weight is up, as would be expected for a big man in a period of inactivity. He said he currently weighs 350 pounds, he wants to be under 345 by April 6 and his target is 325 for the start of the season.
"Jack talks to me about being one of those players," Manuwai said of becoming recognized as an elite run-blocker, "but it's tough because you're in a (small) market. That's not my goal. My goal is to help the team. I look forward to knowing I'm doing what the Jaguars want me to do. That's the team that's paying me."
The Jaguars need to get back to where they were in 2007, when they made an impressive run to the playoffs that carried through Pittsburgh on a snowy day in December when the Jaguars rushed for 224 yards. Fred Taylor was the star that day, rushing for 147 yards, but it was Manuwai who cleared the way.
Can they get back there? Can the Jaguars offensive line become dominant again?
"That was our thing; physically breaking the guys down. All of a sudden those three and four yards turn into 20 and 30. You have to have that feeling that you want the play called to your side. When we had that draw in Pittsburgh (in the playoffs) on fourth and two, I was excited. I glanced to my left and David (Garrard) ran right there," Manuwai said.
They were the best of times and any chance of those times returning would seem to depend on Manuwai's recovery.