He’s made his name as a tough and uncompromising on-baller and a return to the bash and crash of the AFL midfield is what Ben Howlett covets. 

The 28 year old began his official pre-season campaign last week. 

Howlett is Essendon’s third greatest tackler of all time (behind Brent Stanton and Jobe Watson) and said he’s missed competing against the game’s best midfielders.

“I’ve dropped a few kilos so I’m a bit lighter this year which will hopefully help me run a little more,” Howlett said.

“All of us are really looking forward to that competitive style and really crashing and bashing. 

“The guys we had in that group are all competitive beasts and we all pushed each other really hard throughout the year.” 

Howlett has played 117 games for the Bombers after making his debut in 2010. 

Between 2011 and 2015, the former Rookie played at least 19 games each season, as he became a mainstay of the Essendon midfield.

In his absence throughout 2016, young players were given more midfield minutes and Howlett said he was impressed by what he saw. 

“Tippa and guys like Darcy Parish played really well throughout the year but even some of the guys that  have been there for a few years now like Kyle Langford, Jayden Laverde, even Marty Gleeson really showed they can play consistent senior football,” he said.

“There is a bit of a spring in our step when we’re running around.  Drills are more enjoyable now and guys are really challenging each other to be better players.

“Seeing how the guys went last year really made us excited for this year.”

Howlett trained alongside the nine returning Dons throughout 2016.

He said the players’ natural competitive spirit ensured they maintained the motivation throughout the year. 

“Hooksy (Cale Hooker) is a guy you like to jump on the back of because he likes to challenge you all the time,” he said. 

“It was great to have little competitions with those guys and Sean Wellman was great in having competitions so we could egg each other on. 

“I went to a couple of games and I was really excited to see how the boys went and I think it’s promising to see what the guys produced and I’m looking forward to jumping in with them.” 

The full Essendon playing list will train together from next week, but the returning players and the Club’s first to fourth year players have been hitting the track over the last ten days. 

“It has been really enjoyable.  I love getting out there with the boys and having a kick and just the camaraderie in the change rooms is great too,” Howlett said. 

“Getting around those guys and joining in drills with those guys makes it really enjoyable.

“We probably haven’t seen a lot of the faces during the year so to get around those faces again is really good.” 

Howlett’s time away allowed him to spend more time with his family and three weeks ago he and his partner welcomed the arrival of a baby boy. 

“He’s fantastic, I’m really lucky,” he said.

“He’s sleeping really well.  I’m actually getting a lot of sleep thank God but my partner Emma is fantastic. 

“I’m really lucky to have such a wonderful family who all flew over from WA and supported us throughout that time.”