By Mark Long
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Marcus Stroud jumped out of his stance, lifted his 310-pound body well off the ground, extended his long arms and blocked a field goal attempt during practice.
The former first-round pick from Georgia then strutted off the field and body-bumped teammate Rashean Mathis.
Indeed, there was cause for celebration for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Not only was it a solid fourth-down play at the end of a two-minute drill during Wednesday's practice, but it was a sign that Stroud was recovering perfectly from offseason ankle surgery and ready to return to form following two injury-filled seasons.
"I'm getting there," said Stroud, a three-time Pro Bowl starter at defensive tackle. "I'm feeling pretty good about what I'm doing so far. I'm definitely not satisfied and definitely have some other things to do. I have high expectations for myself this season that I plan to reach if I can stay healthy."
Stroud hasn't stayed healthy in recent years.
Although he started every game in 2004 and 2005, he spent much of the time battling ankle, knee and groin injuries. His production dropped both years, and he finished 2004 with 66 tackles and one sack - his lowest totals since his rookie season in 2001.
Stroud had hoped to rebound in 2006, but he injured his right ankle in practice just before the opener and wasn't the same the rest of the way.
He missed five games, and even when he was in the lineup, he struggled to dominate the line of scrimmage as he had in previous years. He made 34 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks.
He underwent microfracture surgery in January to repair a hole in his ankle cartilage. Stroud sat out most of the team's offseason conditioning program while trying to strengthen his ankle.
"Some days are better than others," Stroud said. "As far as my ankles and everything, I feel fine. It's just a matter of getting back there and shaking this rust off to get back into football form."
Stroud recorded 322 tackles and 15 1/2 sacks his first four years in the league and was the cornerstone of coach Jack Del Rio's stout defense.
Stroud concedes football was easy back then. But that changed with the injuries, and he's had to adjust his approach along with them. He now spends extra time rehabbing, extra time conditioning, extra time in the weight room and extra time in meeting and video rooms.
"It wasn't getting done the old way, and if it's not getting done the old way, you've got to try something different," Stroud said. "All the great players say they put in extra time doing this, extra time doing that. Something has to be right. I just decided to try it this way."
Del Rio has noticed a difference - and it showed when Stroud blocked the field goal.
"He was asked to and challenged to work at it because it would take all of that to get back to the kind of player that we're counting on here," Del Rio said. "He has embraced that, committed the entire offseason. He very consistently, very diligently, worked at the conditioning to allow himself to come into this season and give us that big, studly, Pro Bowl defensive tackle back that we need.
"He's working. His body is working. His mind is working. His commitment is there - and that's the biggest thing."