Don’t Count Out James Starks at Running Back Just Yet


James Starks scores on a 22 yard touchdown run in the third quarter last December against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph

We’re not even into a full week of training camp, and the Green Bay Packers running back situation is already looking really interesting.

Only four practices have transpired, two of those padded, so it’s easy to overreact to the small sampling of football we’ve seen from the players so far. So I’ll try to avoid any grand reactionary statements in this piece.

But one thing is evident so far in camp: We all wrote James Starks off way too early.

I’m definitely guilty of this. Like many other Packers bloggers, beat reporters, and team analysts, I had Starks pegged as the odd man out at running back and being the one most likely cut by the team heading into the season.

Were we all wrong? Did we jump to conclusions too soon?

Starks was nearly a non-factor last season. Only playing six out of 18 possible games, and recording an unimpressive 255 yards with an average 3.6 yards per carry. In all fairness, Starks’s 2012 season was sabotaged from the beginning by a string of injuries.

James Starks is defended on a run by San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) during the first quarter of a 2012 preseason game at Qualcomm Stadium. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Starks has dealt with injuries most of his young football career. He missed most of his rookie season in 2010 due to a serious hamstring injury suffered before camp. He broke on the scene at the end of the season that year and became a key part to the Packers playoff push to the Super Bowl, posting a league-leading 315 rushing yards in the playoffs.

2011 was suppose to be the season Starks took the reins and became the Packers’ featured back, and even though he led the team with 578 rushing yards, he missed a significant amount of time due to an ankle injury.

This trend continued last season when Starks dealt with a severe turf toe injury that kept him out of the majority of camp and caused him to miss the beginning of the season. When Starks finally returned to the lineup and began seeing carries, he suffered a serious knee injury in early December that resulted in him missing the rest of the season.

So can Starks ever stay healthy? That is the question hanging over his career like a dark cloud – a cloud I’m sure he liked to break through.

In an interview with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Rob Reischal, Starks said this season he’s going to be smarter when running the ball. “There’s a lot of injuries I could probably avoid . . . Not staying up, putting my shoulder down in certain situations or falling down a little sooner or not taking those extra blows.”

And in an interview by Tom Silverstein, Starks said he feels better than he’s ever had in his career. He’s healthy and he’d like it to stay that way this season, for once. According to the interview, Starks really worked on his body in the offseason, trying to improve his flexibility by working on “opening up his hips, tightening his core and relieving some of the tension on his leg muscles” (click on the link to see the rest of the interview).

James Starks rushes with the football during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

For Starks, all the work in the offseason was to work toward staying healthy and being in the best shape he could possibly be in heading into training camp.

Based on early reports from camp, it worked.

From both team beat reporters and Coach McCarthy, Starks has been one of the most impressive players so far in camp. Granted, it’s still early and there is a long way to go before handing out roster spots or playing time, but this still says something about a veteran back that most spectators wrote off before a single snap was taken in camp.

Starks isn’t ready to hand over the job to the incoming rookies quite yet.

Coach McCarthy named Starks as one of the standout players of Tuesdays padded practice and praised Starks for his improvement in pass catching and run-after-the-catch ability – areas of his game previously lacking.

Starks has been reported as running with “violence” and cutting hard, showing no signs of a lingering knee injury. During redzone drills on Tuesday, Starks broke a tackle from Terrell Manning and charged through M.D. Jennings on an impressive run to cross the goal line.

So far in camp, Starks is proving to everyone that we shouldn’t count him out in the running back competition quite yet, but he still has a long hill to climb.

Alex Green has been splitting reps in the first team offense with Starks and has reportedly been having a good camp, as well. Rookie backs Jonathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy have also had their moments, demonstrating their talents on explosive runs out of the backfield.

And what will happen when DuJuan Harris returns to the position in a couple of weeks? Harris ended last season as the Packers starting running back and posted the position’s best running average last year with 4.6 yards per carry.

James Starks carries the football during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

The overabundance of running back talent in camp this year is the antithesis of the Packers running back problem in camp last year. They could barely run position drills because they had so many backs on the injury list and had to end practice early. It doesn’t look like the Packers will have that problem this year, however.

The upcoming preseason games will be more important than ever for the running back position. These four games will determine who stays on the final roster and who becomes the Packers featured running back.

With the competition being as tight as it is this year, look for the back that does all the little things in both practices and games.

The back that not only runs well, but can push the pile in short yardage or goal line situations. The back that can pick up the blitz and demonstrate an understanding of pass protection reads and audibles. The back that can be a reliable checkdown receiver for Rodgers and can make something happen after the catch. And finally and most importantly, the back that can stay healthy.

That’s the back the Packers seek.

Can James Starks be this back?

We’ll see. Stay tuned …