ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The horde of microphone- and camera-wielding media gathered around Willis McGahee faster than an angry front seven reacting to a draw play Tuesday afternoon, and the 12-year veteran couldn't help but flash a smile at how quickly he was surrounded.
"Y'all been waiting for me?" he said with a smile, scanning the crowd.
When you're the only player under contract who was healthy and eligible to practice but did not take part in voluntary organized team activities -- and you were a starter for most of the last two seasons -- you're going to get this kind of attention. McGahee's work in Tuesday's mandatory session was his first since he injured his knee in a Week 11 win over San Diego last year.
He's 100 percent now. He has been for a while, and has been working out in Miami. He said he's lost weight, and he looked a bit trimmer than he did last year. But recovery from the knee injury was not the reason why he missed OTAs, and he insisted that if he'd had his druthers, he would have arrived long before.
"I didn't choose not to (take part). I had a reason. Family reasons," he said, adding that he notified Head Coach John Fox that those considerations would keep him away from OTAs.
His teammates appeared happy to see him.
"I gave him a little crap, too, because I was looking for him because I was seeing him and I was like, 'Where'd my guy go?'" said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. "He had his issues and stuff he had to take care of this offseason and everybody knew that, so it was fine.
"We knew where he was. He's coming back in shape. If he was out of shape then it would be a problem. But he looks the part and he looks in shape so he's good."
The offense emphasized tempo in McGahee's absence, but he brushed off any concerns that its pace would but him behind schedule. "That's part of being a pro," he said.
His experience still puts him on solid footing among the running backs, and makes up for any lag he might have.
"You can most definitely see he brings a presence with him when he enters a room, in a good way, because we all know what he's capable of doing," rookie Montee Ball said. "So, obviously, the coach isn't asking him if he knows the plays; he's asking us if we understand the plays."
There wasn't much asked of McGahee on Tuesday morning. He mostly watched practice while other, younger running backs took the overwhelming majority of the repetitions in team and seven-on-seven periods.
"You know, I was just actually just seeing what was going on, seeing how things were operating out there," he said. "I got a couple of plays in, but this afternoon I'm going to do a whole lot more."
He didn't perceive the light workload as a referendum on his status among the Broncos' running backs.
"I didn't dig deep into it because I knew what it was; they (the coaches) told me," he said.
Still, the competition for carries in training camp practices promises to be fierce, as the group is arguably the most competitive on the team. Six running backs have regular-season experience in the Broncos' backfield during the last two years -- McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball, Jacob Hester and Jeremiah Johnson. Hillman and rookie Montee Ball were high draft picks in the last two years.
Even if McGahee had participated in OTAs, he figures that he would have been "behind the eight-ball either way," as he put it, in the scrum of runners.
"Younger group. Just being real, right?" he said. "But at the end of the day I'm going to go out there and be Willis McGahee. I can't worry about what other guys are doing. I mean, those other guys are very talented. I like them. I like the way they run. I want runners to succeed because I ain't going to be here forever, you know, regardless of if it's next year, this year. I mean, somebody's got to be able to step up."
And even with all that youth and the recent investment in Hillman and Montee Ball, McGahee still believes that somebody will be him.
"I plan on starting Sept. 5," he said.
If he does, he would have more experience than any other starting running back in Broncos history. This will be McGahee's 11th season. Only one running back in Broncos history with that much experience has ever had more than 80 carries in a season -- Tony Dorsett in 1988.
"About the last seven years I've been written off. Getting too old. I love it, though," McGahee said. "I think if I didn't have that motivation, I probably would be done by now. But you know there's people out there who have their doubts and I'm out to prove them wrong."