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Countdown to camp: Thunder and lightning mostly thunder

Posted Jul 16, 2014

DuJuan Harris provides lightning to Packers' 1-2 punch

The following is the second installment in a series of stories that’ll examine the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the running backs.

GREEN BAY—The 1-2 backfield punch of Eddie Lacy and James Starks in 2013 was the most productive by far of the Mike McCarthy era.

The duo combined for 1,671 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in the regular season, complementing the passing game when Aaron Rodgers was at the helm and spearheading the offense at times in his absence.

Despite the fact that both are bigger backs – Lacy is 230 pounds, Starks 218 – there was a thunder-and-lightning quality to the pair.

Lacy pounded away to the tune of 4.1 yards per carry, with only three of his 284 rushes gaining at least 20 yards. Starks, on the other hand, became a sort of breakaway threat, with five of 89 attempts going for 25 yards or more, including three long TD runs. He finished with an impressive 5.5 yards-per-carry average.

That’s what makes this duo so intriguing heading into 2014. Lacy is certainly capable of more explosive runs. His 56-yarder against Chicago and 60-yarder at Dallas were the offense’s two longest rushes of the season. Meanwhile, Starks can pound away when called upon, as he did during the 2010 playoffs as a rookie.

McCarthy would like as many backs as possible to be every-down players, because less mid-series substituting facilitates the no-huddle and up-tempo phases of his offense. Lacy and Starks fit that bill.

If there’s a challenge arising to that pecking order, it could come from DuJuan Harris. The small but powerful (5-8, 203) back was projected to be the lightning to Lacy’s thunder last year, but a knee injury in the preseason landed him on injured reserve.

When fully healthy, Harris has the burst and explosiveness to add another dimension, which he showed in rushing for four touchdowns in a season-ending six-game span in 2012.

Of all the reserve backs after Lacy and Starks, Harris enters training camp at the top of the list following the release of Johnathan Franklin due to a neck injury.

The others are second-year pro Michael Hill and undrafted rookies Rajion Neal and LaDarius Perkins, both from the Southeastern Conference.

Hill, an undrafted rookie last year from Missouri Western State, began 2013 on Green Bay’s practice squad before being signed to the active roster during the Week 4 bye and playing in two games. He was placed back on the practice squad three weeks later and then was signed in mid-November by Tampa Bay, where he spent the rest of the season, appearing in six games and getting his first nine pro carries. The Packers brought him back in the offseason for another look.

Neal was the University of Tennessee’s leading rusher a year ago, topping 100 yards five times on his way to a 1,100-yard season. He has an impressive-looking frame (5-11, 220) and no doubt will be eager to show what he can do in higher-contact drills during training camp.

Perkins is in the Harris mold size-wise (5-7, 195) and had his best collegiate season two years ago, rushing for more than 1,000 yards for Mississippi State.

“I think they’ve done good,” Lacy said when asked as the offseason program concluded for his evaluation of the younger backs. “Sitting in meeting rooms, coach will ask a question and the rookies are firing first. They’re definitely in their playbook.

“When they get out on the field, they may overthink it a little too much, but they definitely know what they’re doing. They’re studying, and when we put the pads on, we’ll see how they are.”

Rounding out the offensive backfield are two fullbacks, veteran John Kuhn and first-year pro Ina Liaina, whom the Packers signed shortly after last season ended.

It’s debatable how necessary a fullback is these days, and some teams are doing away with one entirely. For the Packers, though, Kuhn is as respected as any player in the offensive meeting room and frequently garners Rodgers’ praise for his knowledge of the offense and in-game adjustments. Those traits, along with short-yardage rushing skills and decent hands out of the backfield, have allowed the former waiver-wire acquisition to last seven full seasons in Green Bay, and the cult hero is looking to make it at least eight.

As much as Liaina looks the part (6-0, 250), Kuhn could still be tough to unseat despite being, at age 31, the offense’s oldest player. He was last seen diving across the formation to block Chicago’s Julius Peppers on the season-saving play in Week 17, and then plunging into the end zone for a go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown against San Francisco in the wild-card game, his seventh career postseason TD.

Previously in Countdown to Camp:
 
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