By Jody Foldesy THE WASHINGTON TIMES The days of throwing up in his hospital room, of not being able to get up the stairs or sit on a toilet, of having to re-learn how to walk and, most galling, of being without football are over. Washington Redskins defensive tackle Brandon Noble performed full-squad drills yesterday for the first time since blowing out his left knee in the 2003 preseason. Getting cleared Wednesday by his Charlotte, N.C.-based surgeon, Glenn Perry, and participating in yesterday's start to the offseason's final minicamp completed a remarkably quick return after speculation last summer that Noble's career might be over. Still sporting a good 18 inches of scars on a knee that had the ACL and MCL torn and the kneecap dislocated, Noble said he's feeling increasingly confident even if he still has to be diligent about rehabilitation. "The brace has helped me a lot," Noble said, wearing a bulky black contraption that stretched thigh-to-calf on his left leg. "Before I had the brace on, if I would take certain steps, I could feel a little wiggle in there. But with the brace on, it's really helped me mentally to just go out and play. "Obviously, we're still out there in shorts and shirts. It's not real football yet. But it felt good today. And each day I'll get a little more confidence in it, it'll feel stronger, and hopefully by September, I'll be ready to go." Fellow Redskins expressed little surprise at Noble's return, pointing to the work ethic that made him coach Joe Gibbs' first player of the week. The award goes with Gibbs' parking space, the closest to the entrance at Redskin Park. "In the offseason, [the award winner is] the hardest worker," Gibbs said. "He got the first award. A lot of people said he would never play again, and he's back out there. I think it said a lot about him." Quarterback Patrick Ramsey recalled how last season, when he and Noble were nursing injuries (Ramsey battled foot pain before undergoing surgery in December), Noble maintained an upbeat attitude that belied the severity of his injury. "He was never down," Ramsey said. "Some guys are like, 'I've been better.' He was always, 'I'm doing good.' Nobes is a guy, you walk in the training room, he's a vet trainer. He's doing his own ice and [electronic stimulation]. He's doing his own ultrasound in there. That's one thing he's really impressed on me, how he's handled the whole situation." Not that rehab was easy. In an interview last fall, Noble explained how his life changed in the wake of the injury. Even after motion returned and he could bend his knee, he didn't have the strength to do a leg curl or the muscle memory to get up and down stairs. Nonetheless, he stayed steadily ahead of schedule. Early best-case scenarios had him returning to team activities in training camp and, at most, doing some agility drills at this minicamp. Instead, he was able to do those agility drills at the first two minicamps — in late March and early May — and yesterday he validated his progress with team work. "Part of me believed that I would be back," Noble said. "After the surgery, my doctor said, 'There's no reason you can't play football this fall.' At that point, I said, 'Now it's up to me. Now it's just working and coming in here and doing what the trainers ask me to do.' And that's never been a problem for me." Noble now appears on course to return to the starting lineup, where he was Aug. 16, when he took on the weight of three players and his knee buckled gruesomely in a preseason game against the New England Patriots. Although the Redskins are excited to have Noble back, observers wonder whether he'll play to his former level — and whether that level is enough for a defensive interior that struggled last season. Noble never has been a play-making defensive tackle; at his best with the Dallas Cowboys, he absorbed double-teams so teammates could make plays. But that capability, combined with what teammates consider outstanding football smarts, could make a difference. "He's probably one of the smartest players that I've played around," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "Just reading formations and knowing what's coming — he makes it easier for everyone who's in there. I played with him very shortly last year, but he knew his stuff. He can tip you off to what play is going to come before it comes. You can't replace that kind of leadership on the field." Despite the buzz Noble's return generated, he remains focused on a methodical journey to full recovery. He'll be in full pads when training camp opens at the end of July, but his work will continue with an eye on the season opener nearly 11/2 months later. "The goal is Sept. 12, Tampa Bay," Noble said. "Between now and then, I have to get myself ready to play. At this point my job is to listen to my trainers, listen to my body, make sure I don't push it too hard, but at the same time work enough where I can get the rust off and go out and help my team."