Getting healthier, Saints receiver Kenny Stills is glad to be back in the mix _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints receiver Kenny Stills jogs before practice earlier this month at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Straining a quadriceps muscle an hour into the first practice of training camp was not how Saints receiver Kenny Stills envisioned his second NFL season beginning.

After all, his rookie campaign had been so charmed: He finished third on the Saints with 641 receiving yards, 32 catches and five lengthy touchdown grabs, all from between 34 and 76 yards. He dropped only one pass thrown his way as the Saints won 12 of 18 games to make it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, and the 20.03 yards he gained per catch were the best among NFL players who qualified for the leaderboard in that category.

Yet things have not gone smoothly for Stills as a sophomore pro, at least not initially. He first tweaked a quad in an offseason workout with quarterback Drew Brees in San Diego around late June, then messed it up even more while trying “to take off and run a little bit too fast” during an early one-on-one passing drill at the first practice of training camp July 25, he said.

The 6-foot, 194-pound Stills was either sidelined or limited for the next 15 days of practice; was absent for the Saints’ preseason victories at St. Louis and vs. Tennessee; and didn’t return to full team drills until a Monday session in Metairie.

“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot — a lot of team-building at camp, getting in shape and getting the reps with Drew and with the offense,” Stills said after practice Monday, when he fielded punts, caught at least one long ball in drills and spoke to the media for the first time since he was hurt. “You go through the offseason, and you’re so excited to get back and play (that) to get hurt on the first day was rough for me.”

But now it looks like Stills has a shot to be ready for the Saints’ exhibition Saturday at Indianapolis and an even better one to be set for Week 1 at Atlanta. And knowing that makes it easier for Stills to view the quad issue as more of a learning experience than a career complication.

Stills did all of the things players on the mend at training camp are supposed to do. He furiously scribbled notes in meetings with a receiving corps that he is expected to lead with veteran Marques Colston and rookie first-round pick Brandin Cooks. He studied the playbook. He watched his teammates rehearse as many snaps as he could, tracing over their steps in his mind in what his industry refers to as “mental reps.”

“He (is) a quick study,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Stills, who helped New Orleans’ passing offense finish second in the NFL in 2013. “Mentally, he’s pretty sharp.”

The son of a former safety for the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, Stills couldn’t hide his disappointment about being reduced to observing.

“Kenny’s a guy that’s depressed not practicing — you can see it affect him,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “He doesn’t like not being there. He wants to get the reps. That’s how he was last year. That’s why he was able to be successful as a young guy.”

So Stills convinced himself he was healthier heading into training camp than he was following the original injury in San Diego. Obviously, he soon found out he wasn’t, and he attempted to speed up the process of coming back.

He circled the exhibition at St. Louis on Aug. 8 and decided he’d surely be available for that contest. That didn’t happen, and it became clear the stubborn rush to be in that contest might have kept him out of the one against the Titans this past Friday as well.

“I’ve had a few setbacks,” the 22-year-old Stills, a 2013 fifth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma, said without elaborating. “I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t care if it’s the preseason or the Super Bowl. ... (And) I tried to force it a few times.”

Aware that didn’t produce the desired results, Stills is the wiser for it.

“It’s a lot different having to learn that patience, so I think I’ve learned a lesson with injuries,” Stills said. “Hopefully I don’t have to deal with them again.”

He added: “You miss something when it’s taken away from you ... (and) I’m just so happy to be out here. There’s a smile on my face all day to be at practice and be able to compete with the guys.”