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SPIELMAN, KERNER SHOWING PROGRESS TOWARD RETURNING

Chris Spielman and Marlon Kerner are back at work this week and are on track to be back on the field for the Buffalo Bills this summer.

Spielman and Kerner, both coming off serious injuries, are among about 30 Bills who arrived in town this week for the start of offseason conditioning workouts.

The Bills are counting on both to be key contributors to the defense.

Spielman, the starting inside linebacker, had surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck on Nov. 5. Kerner, a strong candidate to take over the starting left cornerback job vacated by Jeff Burris, had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his knee on Dec. 15.

"I feel good, I have no pain, I'm ahead of schedule," Spielman said Tuesday. "I'm cleared for minicamp. I'm full go for lifting and running and everything besides beating my head up."

Spielman got a progress report from doctors a month ago that showed the two bones in his neck have fused together properly. He said he will have follow-up visits with doctors in June and fully expects to be cleared for full contact workouts at the start of training camp in July. The Bills share his optimism.

"I can honestly say I feel better now than I did last year at this time, because I did have some symptoms in my neck from the previous year," he said. "I had to temper myself from November to February, which was very difficult to do. But I was patient. Now I'm full go, and I can work as hard as I want to work."

Spielman said the confidence of his doctors in his recovery eased fears that he might not be able to play again. He missed the last eight games of last season due to a ruptured disk between two of the vertebrae in his neck.

"Once you get clearance and you feel good and you see the belief in the doctor's eyes telling you that you're going to be fine, it erases all doubt," Spielman said.

"Just to feel part of the team again is a great thing. I'm just happy to be given a reprieve because I faced my mortality and now I have a second chance, and it's a wonderful feeling."

Kerner, meanwhile, missed the final three games of the season after tearing ligaments in his left knee. Dr. Richard Steadman of Vail, Colo., performed the surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament. Kerner also had a partial tear in the medial collateral ligament that healed on its own.

"I've been rehabbing at Ohio State -- I graduated on March 20 -- and now I'm here," said Kerner, who completed his degree in consumer affairs.

"They say I'm progressing on schedule, and Dr. Steadman said I'll be fine by the time training camp rolls around," said Kerner, who hopes to start jogging in a couple of weeks.

Burris' signing of a free-agent contract with Indianapolis leaves Kerner at the top of the depth chart at left corner. However Kerner has been in tight competition the past three years with Ken Irvin. Kerner was the Bills' No. 3 corner in '95 and '97. Irvin was No. 3 in '96.

Given his injury, Kerner said he's worrying more about getting on the field than starting. It's possible he could be limited in workouts at the start of training camp.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Are you the man?' And I say 'no, because I'm injured,' " Kerner said. "I'm thinking more about getting healthy first. I want to get back to where I was before I got injured and go from there."

Kerner said he's looking forward to playing for new defensive backs coach Bill Bradley, who replaced Dick Roach.

"I'm happy about the fact it's going to be a competition," Kerner said. "Jeff leaving has left the door open for myself, Kenny and Ray Jackson (a third-year corner). We have a new defensive backs coach, and that opens things up. It's a fresh start for everybody."

Most of the players in town are younger veterans, those with four years' or less experience. They will train over the next several months under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones.

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