Shaq Lawson had to give some thought Wednesday to the last time he had worn a helmet and shoulder pads.
"Probably the national championship game," he said.
That would have been on Jan. 11, when Lawson's Clemson Tigers lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide. He played that game with a damaged right shoulder, something that lingered since his freshman year in 2014 and the Buffalo Bills decided should be surgically repaired shortly after making the outside linebacker their first-round draft pick in April.
On Wednesday, Lawson put on the helmet and pads and had his first official NFL practice, a night-and-day experience from his brief participation in rookie minicamp. After spending six weeks on the Bills' physically unable to perform list, he's eligible to be activated and could wind up playing his first professional game Sunday when the Bills face the Miami Dolphins.
"I'm just happy to get back on the field with my teammates," Lawson said. "It's been a long, long journey, but I'm just glad to be back there with my teammates and be back on the practice field. ... I felt great out there. I felt better than I've ever been. I felt completely healthy, so it was just great to be out there."
He said he "pretty much took a lot of reps," sometimes just focused on technique work, but that he also "repped out" with the starting defense, "mixing in and out with the ones."
The Bills don't need to push it with Lawson.
Their defense has been playing exceptionally well without him. His replacement, journeyman Lorenzo Alexander, leads the NFL with eight sacks and the Bills have 21 sacks in six games -- only one fewer than they had in 16 last season.
"We'll see," coach Rex Ryan said about the likelihood of Lawson playing Sunday. "Obviously, we're going to err on the side of caution. But if he's ready to roll and we feel great about it and he feels great about it, the doctors feel great about it, then let's let it rip.
"I think he's in shape, but it's the old getting in football shape. And we saw that with Marcell (Dareus, who has missed two games with a hamstring pull since returning from a four-game suspension). Marcell might have been in shape, but then trying to get on the football field, he gets the hamstring so we've got to get through that."
Before Wednesday, Lawson had been working on his own in the Bills' field house each day. He did plenty of running and other cardiovascular conditioning work. The Bills' strength-and-conditioning coaches put him through a rigorous routine and he admitted that "some days he didn't want to do rehab."
But Lawson is the first to acknowledge that there will be a major transition going from working out in a T-shirt and shorts to doing football maneuvers in full gear.
"That's my adjustment, getting used to pads and things like that," he said.
Ryan and the Bills' defensive coaches are mainly watching how Lawson handles the "timing" between himself and opposing blockers. As high a level of competition he faced at Clemson, the NFL is still a notch or two greater.
Lawson will see and deal with things with which he never saw or dealt in college.
"You've got to defend yourself, but you've got to attack," Ryan said. "You've got to get off blocks, all those type of things on the NFL level, so he's got a lot" to show before he will be allowed to play.
Ryan isn't concerned about Lawson's understanding of the Bills' defense, which is known for being complex. Although Lawson hasn't practiced, he has attended meetings and, by all accounts, been attentive. His grasp of the scheme is thought to be solid enough for him to play.
"I don't think that's going to be an issue," Ryan said. "I think he knows what he's doing, he'll know what he's doing. But just getting out there and physically doing it, I think, is a big deal."
"I've been involved with the defense since Day One," Lawson said. "Jerry" Hughes, "Kyle Williams and those guys have been helping me through the process since I had surgery, so when I came out here" Wednesday, "I feel like I was picking up. I picked up fast, I knew what to do, knew the installs."
If Lawson does play, he would likely be utilized as a pass-rush specialist in certain defensive packages. The Bills would probably limit the amount of the defensive game plan he would be required to know so that he can rely mainly on his physical skills.
"That's probably what we'll do," Ryan said. "It'll be shortened up a little bit and get him out there physically and basically get his feet wet a little bit."