DuJuan Harris an option on kickoff returns

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Sometimes, it's easy to miss little DuJuan Harris, all 5-foot-8 of him. But there was no mistaking where the Green Bay Packers running back lined up when special teams coach Shawn Slocum called for the No. 1 kickoff return team early in Tuesday's minicamp practice.

There was Harris, standing at the goal line ready to return kickoffs.

It was the first time since he joined the Packers midway through the 2012 season that the diminutive running back took reps with the top kick return unit.

It had been in the plans last season, but 2013 was a lost year for Harris, who had surgery that spring to have a cyst removed from his lung and then was shut down for the season in August because of a patellar tendon injury that required arthroscopic surgery to drain fluid from around his knee.

Now, Harris not only is back in the mix at running back, where he will compete for time behind starter Eddie Lacy, but he is giving the Packers another option in the return game.

When asked what Harris offers as a return man, Slocum said: "A running back."

Slocum wasn't being snarky. Rather, what he meant was he likes the idea of having someone who is used to finding holes with the ball in his hands.

Last year, the Packers tried rookie running back Johnathan Franklin, but he couldn't catch the ball consistently or make good decisions with it when he did catch it.

After they cut receiver Jeremy Ross following a botched kickoff return in Week 3 against the Bengals, they used cornerback Micah Hyde as their primary returner on both kickoffs and punts. A good as Hyde was on punt returns -- he ranked fifth in the NFL with a 12.3-yard average (and had one touchdown) -- the Packers struggled on kickoff returns. Their 20.3-yard average per kickoff return ranked ahead of only two teams.

While the Packers are keeping their options open -- among those who also fielded kicks at Tuesday's minicamp were Hyde, rookie receivers Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis and second-year receiver Kevin Dorsey -- Harris gives them a different look as a returner.

"Excellent ball skills, like his size, like his physical attributes -- toughness, speed, quickness, change of direction," Slocum said.

Harris was both a kickoff returner and punt returner in high school and college at Troy, but has not taken any punts so far with the Packers. As a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011, Harris returned 14 kickoffs and averaged 22.0 yards per return with a long of 35. The Packers did not give him reps as a returner in 2012 because they had receiver Randall Cobb as their full-time returner.

"It's something I wanted to do," Harris said. "It's a way I can help contribute to the team. They trust me back there, and they're putting the ball in my hands. I've just got to take advantage of the opportunity."

Harris impressed the Packers late in the 2012 season, when he showed a combination of speed and the ability to make defenders miss as a running back. Some of those same attributes could help him as a returner.

"We'll see," Harris said. "I don't want to speak too soon. Just taking everything a day at a time."