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Five Thoughts from Camp Day 20

Posted Aug 13, 2013

Andrew Mason gives his five thoughts from Day 20 of camp, including Chris Kuper's return to the practice field.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Considering that Chris Kuper's first football act upon walking onto the practice field Thursday was to snap the football to quarterback Peyton Manning, asking questions about his background at center was an obvious choice at his post-practice press conference.

He'd never played center in the NFL before. He'd never started at center during his four seasons at the University of North Dakota; all of his starts there came at right guard and left tackle. It has been nine years since he played center, and even that experience during his junior season at North Dakota was brief.

"I took three snaps in a game," he said. "It was all right."

"We've all talked about doing it," he added. "It's something I need to work on. Last year I was probably the emergency center. I didn't do it much last year, so if we would have come down to it, it might have been interesting. We've got to get it figured out."

The only experienced options at center are Ryan Lilja, with 12 career starts at the position, and Steve Vallos, with nine. But before you start plugging Kuper in as a potential center option, know this: the first task for him is returning to full health and game fitness, and he's not there yet.

1. Kuper's competition won't begin until he's actually able to get onto the field for any team, 9-on-7 or 1-on-1 snaps in practice beyond individual drills and the walk-through period. That didn't happen Tuesday.

"I'm not going to put a timeframe on it," he said.

"Today I was really just kind of feeling it out. I'm not in great football shape quite yet. We're being careful with it."

Kuper admitted that "time is probably what's going to heal it," but time is not a luxury he possesses in earnest. By putting on full pads for Tuesday's practice, he lost his eligibility for the physically-unable-to-perform list, for which a player is eligible only if he does not practice in training camp or the regular season. Thus, if he stays with the Broncos into the regular season, he must be one of the 53 players on the roster. The Broncos already faced tough decisions at cornerback, wide receiver and safety, among other positions. Now Kuper must show his readiness in the next three weeks.

"I just have to earn a spot on the roster," he said. "The main thing is that I have to get healthy enough to be able to compete for that spot."

2. Left tackle Ryan Clady is ahead of Kuper in his recovery, but he's still limited to just a handful of snaps in team periods -- generally in two-play pairs. The third preseason game against St. Louis on Aug. 24 remains his target.

"It's kind of a progression. We have a plan," said Clady. "It's weird not practicing every rep with the team. It's definitely humbling."

The good news for Clady is the condition of his surgically repaired shoulder: he said it's sore after practice, but not a source of pain. Just as much of an issue is being in football condition; his shoulder surgery prevented full workouts throughout the offseason.

"I'm getting there. I'm not 100 percent. The (StairMaster is) a little tricky even when you are in shape," he said.

3. Wes Welker could easily have provided one of the five items in this piece every day, but simply detailing the best play he made in each practice would have become repetitious -- not unlike the 7-to-10-yard receptions that efficiently eviscerated one foe after another during his six years with New England.

Still, when he bursts open for a touchdown pass in red-zone work that sees him streak to the end zone and make the catch in perfect stride -- and then follows that later in practice with a 40-yard touchdown grab up the seam -- it's hard not to envision the possibilities for Welker in his new offense. It's also apparent that cornerback Chris Harris, faced with covering Welker every day in practice, will never have a more difficult game assignment than the one he faces in practice. As long as he doesn't let Welker chip away at his overall confidence, Harris will be the better for the experience.

And Welker might be better -- and more of a threat all over the field, as he continues to catch passes at every range. Don't be surprised if Welker ends up with slightly fewer receptions than his typical 110-120-catch output, but more yards per catch than the 11.2 he's averaged for his career.

4. Duke Ihenacho did it again, beginning the goal-line portion of practice by intercepting a Manning pass to Virgil Green in the back of the end zone. The only thing he did wrong? He threw the ball away in celebration after the play was dead; that's likely to result in a 15-yard penalty (which would have been 10, in this case, since the play ended in a touchback and would be assessed at half the distance from the 20-yard-line).

That wasn't all, as one day after being stiff-armed by running back Montee Ball, Ihenacho returned the favor. After Ball had broken into the open field off the left side, Ihenacho stripped the football and recovered it. As has been the case throughout training camp, Ihenacho's body of work has become too overwhelming to be ignored; as long as he avoids significant regression in the next 10 days, it's hard to imagine him not being a prominent part of the defense.

5. The other standout of the goal-line period was running back C.J. Anderson, who scored two touchdowns on three snaps working with the second team via a touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler and a sweep off the left side. Fellow rookie runner Montee Ball added a touchdown sweep around right end with the first team during the goal-line period; that play also saw Green make up for failing to prevent the interception two plays earlier, as his block helped spring Ball into the open field. Overall, he had one of his better practices of training camp, showing good balance as he moved through holes and decisive cuts throughout the practice; however, the afore-mentioned fumble sullied the performance.

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