Kelechi Osemele had just practiced for two hours under the hot afternoon sun and then retreated to the weight room for an extended workout after the Ravens' organized team activities were over on Wednesday.
Sweat streamed down his forehead and his saturated white Ravens' T-shirt clung to his 6-foot-5, 330 pound frame. Yet, Osemele couldn't stop smiling.
"This is the best I've felt since I was probably 19 or 20," Osemele said. "I feel great. "
As the Ravens ramp up preparations for the start of training camp next month and attempt to solidify an offensive line that was arguably the 8-8 team's biggest issue last season, the health of Osemele is providing plenty of optimism.
About seven months after having back surgery to repair a bulging disk, Osemele is back on the field and working as the first-team left guard. The Ravens haven't completely ruled out moving him to right tackle, but head coach John Harbaugh would prefer keeping Osemele where he is, believing that Osemele and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe could form a dominant left side of the offensive line.
"I sure like the way he and Eugene look on the left side," Harbaugh said. "That's the direction we're headed right now and hopefully we can maintain that course."
Contact is minimal in OTAs but from the way that he's getting off the ball to how he's running from drill-to-drill to what he's been doing in the weight room, Osemele has made it clear that he has no restrictions.
"He's back to his usual self, running around," Monroe said. "He's one of the best conditioned guys on the field — just grinding, trying to get better. We're having to slow him down a little bit because it's been a while since he's played."
Osemele, 24, was officially put on injured reserve on Nov. 8, though he was shut down after seven games when an injury that he initially suffered in college became too difficult to play through.
He ultimately decided to have surgery in which the disk, along with some of the cartilage and his bone in his back, were shaved down. Any kind of back surgery is obviously significant for a big offensive lineman who depends on size, flexibility and balance.
However, a month after surgery, Osemele felt "fine" again. About three months after it, he was already training again, even sneaking in a workout from time-to-time that he wasn't supposed to do. Not once did he ever consider that his career could be in jeopardy after less than two full NFL seasons.
"It really [stunk] being out last year," Osemele said. "When you lose something, you really appreciate it more and more. I'm just excited to be out here playing with my teammates."
Harbaugh has made it a point to praise Osemele in each of the past two weeks. He has often spotted Osemele in the weight room, early in the morning, before workouts or after them, often working out alongside Monroe. On the field, he's loved how much hustle and hard work Osemele has put in.
"You just watch the way he moves. He looks good," Harbaugh said. "He's going to be a lot better than he was last year. He's healthy, so that makes a big difference. I'm looking forward to seeing him once we put the pads on."
At this time last offseason, team officials believed that Osemele, a 2012 second-round pick out of Iowa State, was on the fast track to becoming one of the top guards in football. He was solid at right tackle, starting all 16 games there of his rookie regular season. However, his play elevated after he was moved to left guard as part of the Ravens' pre-playoff shakeup of the offensive line, a decision that figured prominently in the team's Super Bowl run.
Osemele was at his best in the Ravens' 34-31 Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers, rendering Pro Bowl defensive lineman Justin Smith as a non-factor in the game.
But it was after the season when Osemele, motivated by building off his rookie success, admittedly erred. He worked out harder and lifted more, all while the condition of his back, which he managed throughout his first NFL season, worsened.
He ignored the pain in training camp and early in the regular season began, but his level of play had dropped noticeably. Back issues caused him to come out after one drive in the Ravens' Oct. 6 victory over the Miami Dolphins, but a week later, Osemele was back in the starting lineup.
Not long after, when another magnetic resonance imaging revealed the disk was getting worse, and the injury was not only affecting his play but his daily life, Osemele decided he needed to have it fixed.
"I think the medical term is incontinence. Is that what they call it? You have trouble [urinating] and stuff," Osemele said. "I think that's probably when I knew it's probably something that I had to address because I knew [the effects] could be permanent."
Osemele admits now that he didn't handle the injury like he should have. He blames himself for how he trained in high school and college and some of the strain his workouts put on his back. He acknowledges that he should have taken less repetitions in practice and given other teammates opportunities. A.Q. Shipley ultimately had to step in at left guard despite taking few reps there.
"I ate up all the reps and then couldn't play to my ability," Osemele said. "That obviously hurt the team."
All that is in the past now. Osemele has adjusted his workout routine, primarily focusing on exercises that improve his core strength, his stability and his flexibility. He doesn't do any Olympic style lifts or squads, avoiding exercises where he lifts weights over his head.
He's excited about offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Juan Castillo's zone schemes, which emphasize movement and speed. Healthy and happy, Osemele has established a goal of making his first Pro Bowl this season.
"That's always going to be the expectation for me as a player," Osemele said. "Knowing the ability that I have and my work ethic, I feel like I would be an underachiever if that wasn't my goal. That's always going to be my goal."
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