Harris returns to starting role for now

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Admit it: You chuckled when you saw DuJuan Harris listed as the starting running back after the Green Bay Packers released their first depth chart of training camp last week.

After all, how could a guy who had not passed his physical or taken one single snap in organized team activities or minicamp practices this past offseason be the starter?

To be sure, Harris finished last season as the starter and provided a late-season spark to an otherwise punchless running game. But so much has changed in the Packers’ backfield since then. They drafted two running backs, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth, and two others, veterans Alex Green and James Starks, have come back healthy.

On Monday, Harris finally passed his physical and practiced for the first time since he sustained a knee injury before OTAs began. Though he was on a limited snap count, sure enough Harris took the first rep with the No. 1 offense during a team period that was focused on the running game.

“The way we finished the season, I would classify him as a starter on our football team,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “That doesn’t mean he goes out and plays every down, [but] I have confidence in him.”

Still, it’s worth wondering whether McCarthy merely listed Harris as the starter because that’s how last season ended or perhaps he wanted to send a message to Lacy and Franklin that just because they were drafted, doesn’t mean they will be handed jobs.

Of the top-five running backs on the Packers’ roster, Harris was the only one who was undrafted coming out of college. He entered the NFL in 2011 as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Surely, Harris’ height (5-foot-8) played a part in that, however the Packers have never viewed Harris’ size as a detriment. They like his quickness and feel that he has enough power at 203 pounds.

“A lot of players are undrafted and frankly DuJuan Harris being undrafted is probably one of the best things to ever happen to him and the fact that he was out of football,” McCarthy said. “There’s a different level of motivation for guys that go that route in my opinion. Entitlement is abundant sometimes when you’re dealing with some of these guys coming into our league from college and when you see a young man like DuJuan Harris, it’s refreshing to see how motivated he is.”

Signed to the practice squad in Week 8 last season, Harris was promoted to the active roster on Dec. 1. Eight days later, he started against the Detroit Lions and averaged 4.4 yards per carry on seven attempts, including a 14-yard touchdown run. In four regular-season games, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry -- tops among the five different backs the Packers used in the regular season -- and then started both playoff games.

“Last year was last year,” Harris said. “I’ve got to bring something new to the table this year.”

On Monday, it also was more difficult to figure out where Harris fit in because Lacy was held out of practice with a hamstring injury. Lacy did not play in last Friday’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals either. Before his hamstring injury, it looked like Lacy’s strong start to training camp was enough to win him the starting job. The rotation behind Harris during the first team period on Monday was Starks, Green and Franklin. Harris didn’t get any work during the second team period.

“If [McCarthy] believes in me, I believe in myself also,” Harris said. “I’m not going to let him down.”

Harris said he hopes to play in Saturday’s preseason game at St. Louis, but that might be a stretch considering all the time he has missed.

Last year, Harris took a crash course in the Packers’ offense just to get ready to play late in the season and would have benefited from a full offseason program this year. However, his knee injury and an emergency surgery in June to have a cyst removed from his chest set him back.

“It took us a while to get him ready last year,” McCarthy said. “But I thought he finished the season very strong, and I look for him to just get through this week, and we’ll evaluate him as he comes off this injury. I’m very confident that sometime next week, he’ll be where he needs to be.”