RETURNING Essendon defender Michael Hurley is expecting to experience a range of emotions when he runs out for his first game in 529 days on Thursday night.
Having shrugged off an ankle complaint over Christmas, Hurley will join six other teammates caught up in the club's drugs saga in playing their first matches since 2015 when the Bombers take on Collingwood at Etihad Stadium.
"I've had a few text messages the last couple of nights just sort of saying, 'Are you excited or nervous?'," Hurley said.
"It hasn't really felt like we're playing a game but I'm sure tomorrow afternoon it will.
"Once you've got the boots on and you're walking out the race on to the field, that's going to be a pretty exciting time. I think the boys will get together after and reflect on the game."
The opening match of the pre-season competition will also be where Essendon rolls out last year's No.1 draft pick, Andy McGrath, for the first time.
McGrath has impressed teammates as well as coach John Worsfold over the summer and Hurley said the 18-year-old was capable of slotting in seamlessly to the Bombers' line-up this year.
"I don't want to put any pressure on the young fella but the way he's been training, his body shape and the way he uses the ball, there's no reason why he can't play early (in the regular season) I don't think," Hurley said.
"It will be good to see him have a run around. He's impressed a lot of people on the track, the way he goes about his footy."
Swingman Cale Hooker is aiming to take part in the club's third pre-season match against Geelong on March 12 as medical staff take a conservative approach to his return from a hamstring problem.
Key forward Joe Daniher (knee) is hopeful of playing in the club's second match of the series against the Gold Coast on February 26.
"His last two or three weeks he's been getting through a lot of training so I think we'll see him in the second game hopefully and get some load into his legs," Hurley said of Daniher.