Lilja return can key O-line renaissance

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
INDIANAPOLIS -- Picking up on Saturday's post about Indy's run-game mindset...

One thing that can have a huge bearing in that department is the return of left guard Ryan Lilja, who missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury that has required three operations, the third one in December.

He said last season was torturous for him, watching the team struggle early knowing he could help if healthy. With a glimpse of life without football, he promised he realized he might have taken some of the NFL life for granted and pledged he won't anymore.

"We weren't running the ball very well last year, obviously, and it's not fun to know that you're not out there doing your job and earning your paycheck," he said. "... I don't know if it's anything to do with me as much as the continuity and being out there with the guys. You've got the communication. You saw a lot of guys get shuffled in and out last year. That's tough, young guys coming in and out, a lot of injuries. Unless you play the position, you don't really understand how much continuity has to do with the success of the unit and the offense."

Charlie Johnson played 12 games at left guard last season, with Jamey Richard starting three and Steve Justice starting one.

Johnson is a good fill-in player, but not having Lilja in the lineup hurt continuity and production significantly. Lilja has a lot of experience playing beside center Jeff Saturday and a year of work next to left tackle Tony Ugoh.

"There are a lot of little nuances that go on in offensive line play and [Lilja's] seen a good dose of it through the years and he'd help us tremendously," coach Jim Caldwell said.

Figuring out his knee has been a long and frustrating 18-month process, Lilja said. He can't predict how things will turn out and was reluctant to estimate what percentage he's at. His participation in OTA and minicamp practices has been limited.

"I know that I've been getting better for the last three months and that's all that I can ask for," he said. "I don't see a reason that I'm going to stop getting better in the next six weeks. It's holding up really well. Every time we test it out, it responds really well. I haven't had any setbacks. I've been feeling good."

All that time without being able to strengthen the quad that relies on a stable knee hurt his ability to push off like he needs to as a smaller guy relying on leverage. That's something he's building back now.

Unlike most players, he's looking forward to reporting to training camp in Terre Haute on Aug. 2.

"This is the first year I've even been excited about training camp," he said. "To be honest, I'm excited to have a job, to be doing it all. I feel like a rookie again. ... I can't wait to get in those dorms and wake up early and start practicing."