Wendell Smallwood was back on the practice field on Monday, cutting and slashing and bursting and feeling like the hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two preseason games is not even a distant memory.
Can he stay on the field?
"I have to," he said after practice. "I can't help the team if I'm not out there. Right now, I feel great. I plan to keep it that way."
Smallwood, expected to be a key part of the Eagles' offense in the running game, of course, as a pass catcher and on special teams in the kickoff return game. His rookie season was limited to 13 games because of a knee injury, but then Smallwood came back with a strong spring. Running backs coach Duce Staley said that Smallwood was his "most improved" running back after an impressive period during Organized Team Activities.
But Smallwood suffered a hamstring injury early in Training Camp and missed a couple of important weeks. He is on track, barring setback, to seeing his first action on Thursday night against Miami, and Smallwood understands the importance of the moment.
"It's the game, man. It's my Welcome Home party. I'm back on the field, I'm going to get some plays, I'm going to get some runs and I'm going to get some passes," he said. "It's a real important game."
The Eagles have not run the ball effectively in the first two preseason games and, while they acknowledge the struggles and know there are corrections needed to be made, there is no sense of defeat here. The Eagles fully believe they will run the football well this year behind a good offensive line. They think their diversity of talents in the backfield will pose problems for defenses.
And they believe that Smallwood is a very large part of that plan.
"I think Wendell is a true three-down back," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "When we first drafted him, I looked at him more as like a first- and second-down back. I thought he would be OK on third down. But, really, he's turned out to be better on third down than I thought. So I think he is a very versatile back who knows protections very well, who runs good routes, who catches the ball well and then I think he's a slashing runner on first and second down
and Darren Sproles. A running game that hasn't shown much in the preseason wants to turn it around on Thursday night.
What does a preseason game really mean? To a player like Smallwood, on Thursday night, it's a chance to take a huge step forward. He's in the spotlight with two work days against Miami and then a preseason game against a very good defensive front. Smallwood's show time starts now.