GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Packers opened the 2014 preseason last Saturday at rainy LP Field against the Tennessee Titans with a 9-yard scamper by James Starks off right end.
It likely sounds trivial to most. Not Bryan Bulaga.
For the Packers' starting right tackle and Marian Central alum, it was a big moment. Not because he sprung Starks for a solid gain in a preseason contest, but because it was Bulaga’s first time playing in a game on an NFL field in over 18 months.
His career began promisingly, as the former Hawkeye made 33 starts in his first 37 games at right tackle after being selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. So promisingly, in fact, that coach Mike McCarthy planned to entrust Bulaga with the critical task of protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side last season, despite Bulaga coming off a season-ending hip injury that cost him the final seven games in 2012.
Before he could return to his collegiate position in 2013, Bulaga made his second trip to injured reserve in as many years, this time due to a torn ACL suffered in an intrasquad scrimmage last August.
“It was very difficult," said Bulaga of his string of injuries after practice on Wednesday. “Not fun at all.
“But from a standpoint of how I’m feeling now? My body feels great. I’m excited and ready to go.”
Bulaga’s body looks great as well. His long rehabilitation process, which began at IMG training academy in Florida, included trimming 15 pounds to help support his surgically repaired left knee. Bulaga still wore a big brace on his knee at practice on Wednesday, but the improved agility and strengh of the road grading right tackle was fully apparent.
After 2013 fourth-round left tackle David Bakhtiari’s impressive pinch hitting duty last season, Bulaga is back on the right side, where he continues to test his knee every day.
“It’s just now getting back to the right side, pushing off the leg that was injured, just a matter of getting the muscle memory back, the quick-twitch muscles, getting those fired up again. Bulaga said he’s comfortable playing either side, but there's definitely an adjustment, one that he compared to a baseball player trying to switch hit when they’re mainly accustomed to batting from one side of the plate.
Bulaga admitted the process of regaining the comfort level he had in 2012 is ongoing, but the mental hurdle of returning from consecutive season-ending injuries was cleared in OTAs, the first time he lined up against a player trying to get around or through him.
For Bulaga, 25, he’s simply grateful to be back in the mix, on an ascending unit, again playing alongside his teammates and friends. Arguably no unit in football requires the communication and chemistry of an offensive line, and Bulaga said getting back up to speed with right guard T.J. Lang is going well.
“T.J. and I, we’re very good friends off the field, too”, he said, adding that he feels fortunate to play next to one of the finest guards in football. We spend a lot of time together … so I don’t think it takes that long. The biggest thing is getting used to his footwork, what he likes to do, then knowing what I’m comfortable with and meshing those together solidly.”
Entering a contract year, Bulaga would seem to be rounding into shape at the perfect time. After the versatile Don Barclay went down for the season with a knee injury of his own last week, Bulaga understands the opportunity in front of him to show the Packers – and 31 other teams – he’s over the injury bug and ready to become a fixture.
“Everything so far has gone really well," he said. "I just can’t wait for the season to begin.”