ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It’s only natural to be skeptical about a running back in the NFL trying to make a comeback following surgery for a torn Achilles tendon.
Logically, it will take Mikel Leshoure until the second half of the season, if not 2013, before he returns to form for the Detroit Lions after missing all of his rookie year.
But for many in the Lions’ locker room, realism turned to optimism Thursday during the final day of the team’s minicamp.
For the first time since his injury last August, Leshoure got some carries during the team drills. Even though there was no hitting because the players weren’t in full pads, observers came away extremely impressed with his progress.
“That’s what I thought, too. . . . It’s going to take a year for him to get back into his form,” said teammate Nate Burleson.
“For him to be out here the last couple days, getting the ball, catching it out of the backfield, bursting up field and not only running straight-line but cutting, I mean, that’s a good sign. We’re only in June. He has a couple more months to rehab.”
The Lions wanted Leshoure to feel good about himself entering this downtime until training camp opens in late July. His teammates roared as he made some moves to get into the open field.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Leshoure found out that he was being suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the regular season because of two offseason marijuana arrests.
He has been in the news for nothing but getting injured and getting into trouble off the field, but the mood became considerably more upbeat following practice Thursday.
“The thing that was most encouraging about it was when the ball went in his hand, he didn’t think about it,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “We ran him left. We ran him right. He was making cuts off of defenders. He was making cuts as they appeared.
“He wasn’t doing rehab. He wasn’t doing foot patterns. He wasn’t controlling the action. He was reacting to defenders. That’s an important step.
“I thought Mikel looked like a running back. You could tell when he ran, he didn’t think about his ankle or his Achilles or anything. He was thinking about finding the hole and getting up field.
“It was a very, very difficult and long road back.”
It’s far from over for Leshoure, of course.
It wasn’t that long ago that he was still sitting out of practice or participating only in the individual drills. He even tweaked his right ankle while compensating for the left Achilles’ injury.
But considering all he has gone through with the extensive rehabilitation and the negative publicity surrounding the arrests, this was definitely a time to take a step back and feel good about his direction.
“The Achilles feels real good,” said Leshoure, a second-round pick in 2011 out of Illinois. “Today was my first pretty much full action as far as getting some runs and actually have to react from a defense. It felt real good. I felt like I made some cuts. I wasn’t thinking about anything out there. Just going out there, playing and reacting.”
Leshoure also addressed the suspension and vowed not to make the same mistake again.
“I’ve learned from it,” he said. “It won’t happen again. I’m moving forward.”
Leshoure said he hadn’t decided whether to appeal the penalties from the league, which include losing a total of four game checks.
He will be eligible to play in the third week of the season, Sept. 23 at Tennessee.
It would be his first game since Dec. 29, 2010 when he scored three touchdowns in his final collegiate game, a victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
“He’s going to be hungrier than a starving pit bull,” Burleson said, thinking ahead to Leshoure’s NFL debut.
Burleson believes Leshoure, a 6-foot, 233-pound physical back, can give the Lions’ offense a different element.
The one-two punch of Jahvid Best’s speed and Leshoure’s power — along with veteran Kevin Smith — could give the Lions a much-improved running game.
“He’s going to surprise some people,” Burleson said of Leshoure. “This dude is legit. “He has power. He runs forward with his eyes up, feet moving, with a lot of strength. He can separate from the pack when he gets an open field.
“He has a lot of variables to his game. We’re going to need him for us to be what we want to be, one of the most explosive, potent offenses in the league. He’s going to have to play a big role.”
A few cuts in a no-contact practice doesn’t answer the big questions that are still to come in August and September, but at least they didn’t raise more concerns.
Instead, it provided a positive angle for a guy who was overdue for something good to happen.
The Lions announced that their Aug. 5 practice during training camp will be held at Ford Field, followed by an autograph session and a concert featuring country music star Randy Houser.
Tickets priced at $10 and $20 ($5 for children ages 2-12) will go on sale June 22 through Ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000.