Broncos look to Kuper for depth at center

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Not only has Chris Kuper dealt with surgery, a major infection, a long rehab and a contract shave that could cost him roughly $3.5 million, but now he gets to handle a new position as well.

Given that they have one center (J.D. Walton) on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, another already on injured reserve (Dan Koppen) and the current starter (Manny Ramirez) has never started a regular-season game at the position, the Broncos continue to look for reinforcements in-house.

And so, even as he returns from offseason ankle surgery, Kuper will be asked to practice at center at times. He took some snaps in individual drills in Tuesday's practice, his first of this training camp.

"[That's] pretty much it ... I pretty much started today," Kuper said. "I've done it a little bit in the past, but nothing extensive."

Kuper said the last time he had played center in a game was during his junior season at North Dakota, when he moved from left tackle to center in a game for "three snaps.'' In Mike Shanahan's tenure as the Broncos' coach Kuper was a backup long snapper.

It will still take some time, however, before Kuper is fully integrated into practice as he works his way back to full strength. He has dealt with a variety of issues with his left ankle since suffering a fracture and dislocation in the 2011 regular-season finale.

He played in seven games last season, starting five, but had additional surgery following the season as well as treatments for an infection in the joint, and so he was held out of the offseason program and the early portion of this training camp.

"Not there yet," Kuper said. " ... I'm not going to put a time frame on it just because coming back from this thing before and it didn't work out the way I wanted it to."

As far as Kuper's future at center, Broncos coach John Fox said: "We'll look at it. Guys have that flexibility."

"We've all talked about doing it," Kuper said. "And [it's] something I need to work on."

• The Broncos went through a full-blown goal-line period Tuesday and rookie Montee Ball was the running back in the lineup with the starters.

Ronnie Hillman continues to get the majority of the work with the starters in team drills, but the Broncos certainly want to see the 215-pound Ball in action at the goal line behind the first-team offensive line and against the first-team defense. Ball was able to put the ball in end zone, getting around the corner for the score.

Rookie safety Duke Ihenacho intercepted a Peyton Manning pass during the same goal-line period. Ihenacho, who was on the practice squad for most of last season, continues to hold down a starting safety spot.

"You don't get that many [goal-line] reps during the season, so I like doing that in camp, not too close to game time, but to get it on tape," Fox said.

• The Broncos continue to monitor rookie defensive end Quanterus Smith's progress. Smith tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) last November.

After they selected him in the fifth round of April's draft, they brought him along slowly through the offseason program, eventually letting him do team drills as they finished things up in June. He has participated in every practice of training camp thus far, though he was pulled out of the Aug. 1 workout because of knee pain.

Smith has looked less mobile of late, but Fox believes he's simply still working his way back from the surgery.

"I think coming off an ACL injury is never an easy thing for any ballplayer," Fox said. "It's no different for him. But he has fought through it ... he's gaining strength and confidence every day."

The Broncos, especially if all or part of Von Miller's four-game suspension is upheld, want Smith as a spot-duty option in the pass rush. But at 255 pounds Smith needs to be able to cut, plant and work opposing offensive linemen to both the inside and outside to be his most effective.

To do that, he has to confident his leg will hold up. It's a common challenge for players recovering from ACL surgery as they return to game-speed and one Smith is working through right now.

• Left tackle Ryan Clady, who has begun to practice on a limited basis this week, expects to gradually increase his workload as he returns from offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.

"We have a plan, so kind of stick to the plan and get better throughout time," Clady said.

The Broncos are being cautious because a team that wants to line up in a three-wide receiver set as much as they do needs a left tackle who can hold the blindside edge on his own. Any issues with Clady would be felt through the entire offense's game plan.

The Broncos want Clady ready for the regular-season opener and beyond, so they'll continue to go slowly in his return.

• And some odds and ends ...

Rookie wide receiver Lamaar Thomas, who caught the team's attention a bit with his work in the preseason opener in San Francisco, left Tuesday's practice with concussion symptoms ... Safety Quinton Carter (knee), running back Jeremiah Johnson (toe), wide receiver Quincy McDuffie (hamstring) and wide receiver Greg Orton (ankle) did not practice. Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) was also held out and is expected to miss the preseason.