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KERNER TAKES STEP FORWARD FROM SETBACK

Marlon Kerner had a good day Monday. Any time he gets through practice without having some problem with his left knee, it qualifies as a good day.

Kerner participated in his first full practice in more than three weeks after experiencing complications from a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained last December.

"I felt good out there," the fourth-year cornerback said. "I didn't know what to expect. I was up all night thinking about getting out there. Thank God I felt good. I mean, everything just felt great."

Kerner actually couldn't ask for much better than his workout Monday. He displayed the same burst of speed he possessed before the injury, running down Andre Reed on one deep pattern along the sidelines and later covering Quinn Early long enough to force Rob Johnson to throw the ball away.

"I'm definitely happy," Kerner said. "I didn't feel like I had a limp. I felt like I could turn it on when I needed to. It was very encouraging."

He could play in the preseason finale against Washington on Friday if -- and it's a very big IF -- he stays healthy this week. If not, the Bills are hoping he will be available for the season opener against the San
Diego Chargers.

It's too late for Kerner to challenge Ken Irvin, who has had a good camp, for the starting job at left cornerback to begin the season. Kerner more likely will regain his spot in nickel and dime situations when the Bills insert extra defensive backs to protect against the pass.

"Kenny's the starter because he's been doing well over there," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "He earned it. But we expect Marlon to play. We all know Marlon can run, and it's good to see that burst coming back."

"I'm happy for Marlon," Irvin said. "I'm not wishing anything bad on Marlon. He's getting back to the Marlon Kerner he used to be, and I didn't expect anything less. I want to see him back on the field."

Before tearing his ACL last year against the New York Jets, Kerner and Irvin were involved in a neck-and-neck battle for playing time behind Jeff Burris. After Burris left for more money in Indianapolis, the two reserves figured to go head-to-head for the starting job.

With Kerner on the sidelines and Irvin playing well, the competition ended up about as tight as the one quarterback Rob Johnson waged with Todd Collins. But there is one exception: The Bills have all the confidence necessary in Kerner.

"I was never really worried about the battle, and I was never really worried about the position," Kerner said. "It was more about how healthy I would be when the season started. When I started camp, I felt great. Then I had the setback."

Oh yes, the setback. There always seems to be one with players coming back from torn ACLs, and Kerner was no different.

Other than recovering from the knee surgery, which in some cases takes more than a year, Kerner was hampered by a cyst that formed in his calf, traveled down his leg and left him with an ankle more swollen than a circus elephant's.

The cyst might have been brought on by doing too much too soon. Back to the sidelines he went, wondering whether his career was in jeopardy.

"You tear your ACL, it's a slow process," Kerner said. "It took me a long time to realize that I destroyed 25 years of hard work in five seconds. I couldn't expect to come back and be 100 percent. I had to do everything I did for the first 25 years again to get it strong again.

"It made me a better person," he said. "It made me see that you have to be patient with things. I learned how to listen to my body. If (the knee) is aching, it's aching for a reason. It's not aching just to ache."

Last week, while his teammates worked on the defense, the former third-round pick from Ohio State kicked the proverbial tires. He ran sprints along the sidelines and practiced changing direction. He squatted a few times, checking his flexibility. So far, so good.

The next test, of course, is making it through practice for a full week without any complications and playing against the Redskins. Only then will he finally answer the questions that have haunted him since December.

"Would I be as fast? Would I be able to cut? How would it respond?" Kerner said. "I really want to make sure I got healthy just to see if I could go back and do the things I used to be able to do."

Now that he's back on the field, Kerner now needs to define his role in the Bills defense. Other than Burris' departure, the defensive backfield remains intact with cornerback Thomas Smith and safeties Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz.

Last year, Kerner started two games for Burris and finished with two interceptions, tying him with four others for the team lead. Kerner's chief competitor for playing time now is third-year veteran Ray Jackson.

"I'm not coming back trying to rock the boat or anything," Kerner said. "I'm just trying to get healthy. At this point, whatever role they want me in I'll be happy with."

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