LATROBE - Seven months to the day after tearing the ACL in his right knee, Rashard Mendenhall said on Wednesday that he's "right on schedule" with his rehabilitation.
When asked if he has any idea what, exactly, that schedule entails, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back responded, "No, none at all."
Join the club. After all, uncertainty surrounding recovery from ligament reconstruction surgery is a trend for the Steelers.
Mendenhall is one of three veteran Pittsburgh starters who sustained torn ACLs in January. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and offensive tackle Max Starks each went down during Pittsburgh's wild card playoff loss in Denver Jan. 8.
Because of the position he plays and the sometimes-violent pressure placed on lateral movement of the knee by a running back, Mendenhall's recovery is being monitored most closely.
"He has to cut harder," said Hampton, who is rehabilitating from a torn ACL for the third time, "and have more confidence in his knee before he comes back."
Hampton said the previous experience he has recovering from that surgery gives him an advantage over Mendenhall. Hampton sustained the injury in 1997 while in college at Texas, and again in 2004 with the Steelers (No. 7 in the AP Pro32). This is the second time he tore the ACL in his left knee; in 2004, it was his right knee.
Hampton, who was on the field stretching with his teammates for the afternoon practice Wednesday, said Mendenhall will be tentative when he first takes part in contact drills.
"No question he will be," Hampton said. "And that's how I was when I tore mine, too. That's just how it is because you've just never had it before.
"I know I'm not going to tear anything again. [Mendenhall] might know it - but might not be as confident, you know what I mean?"
Mendenhall, apparently, doesn't. The Steelers first-round pick in 2008 said he has heard others talk about the mental block of "trusting" the reconstructed knee to be able to handle the extraordinary stress playing professional football places on it.
He just says he's not experiencing any of that anxiety.
"Mentally, it hasn't been difficult at all," Mendenhall said. "It's really just getting your leg back to normal."
Fellow Steelers running back Baron Batch sustained the ACL injury Aug. 11 of last season. To that point, he had been making an impression as a standout rookie.
It wasn't until almost a full calendar year later that Batch put on a set of shoulder pads for practice (this past Saturday). Batch said that, going into that practice, he decided he was going to make the same lateral cut he did when he was injured 50 weeks prior.
"Being able to do that," Batch said, "helps with confidence."
Tomlin praised Batch for showing no hesitation with the knee. Mendenhall isn't even to that point yet where he would test the knee during practice. Like Starks and Hampton, he is on the physically unable to perform list. Mendenhall has been working out away from the players for the most part, although he has jogged along the back of the end zone during at least one team practice.
"It's hard to say, as far as percentage or how much I'm pushing things, but everything that we've done so far... has been successful," Mendenhall said. "So just taking steps as we go along."
Mendenhall had only 928 rushing yards last season before the injury in the regular-season finale, though he did have nine touchdowns. His 13 rushing touchdowns in 2010 ranked tied for second in the NFL; his 1,273 rushing yards that season were fifth-most in the AFC.
Mendenhall resisted putting any timetable for his return to the practice field, let alone to game action. Hampton said his goal is to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 9 at Denver.
Starks said he hasn't set a projected return from the PUP list or a goal for suiting up in a game. Starks became a free agent soon after tearing the ACL in his right knee against the Broncos.
Pittsburgh drafted Mike Adams with its second-round pick to be its left tackle of the future. Satisfied with the progress of Starks' rehabilitation, the Steelers signed him a week before camp began to provide insurance.
The affable Starks has often been on the sidelines during practices at St. Vincent College.
"It's been day-to-day," Starks said of the rehabilitation, "just testing everything to make sure we're not rushing it too soon."
Starks is ahead of the pace he was on last season, when was unsigned until Oct. 5. He started at left tackle four days later and kept the job the remainder of the season.