GREEN BAY—Packers running back DuJuan Harris is as instinctive as they come, but stepping back onto the field this past spring after a full season away put those instincts to the test.
“Everything is starting to come back to me, but it took a minute,” Harris said during the team’s June minicamp that concluded the offseason program. “I was a little rusty to start out, but I’m starting to feel like I’m playing a lot faster, because I’m starting to recognize everything.”
Harris can be forgiven if it “took a minute” to get back into the swing of things. His last meaningful on-field action came when he bolted up the middle for an 18-yard touchdown run in the NFC divisional playoff at Candlestick Park back on Jan. 12, 2013.
Last year during the offseason, he was sidelined by a cyst on his lung that had to be surgically removed. Then, as he tried to get going in training camp, his knee flared up. That also eventually required surgery and he was placed on injured reserve at the first roster reduction in late August. He appeared in just one preseason game and carried the ball three times.
This spring, Harris said his knee felt fine. He continued to ice it down after workouts, but he doesn’t believe the injury took away any of the burst the 5-8, 203-pounder showed back in 2012, when he rushed for four TDs over the final four regular-season games and two playoff contests.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m just glad to be back running, really. I’ve been told I got a little faster, but we’ll see how things go.”
A full recovery by Harris has become more imperative now that the Packers have released running back Johnathan Franklin due to his neck injury.
Still, a top three at the position of Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Harris looks pretty good. Starks and Harris will, perhaps, battle it out in training camp for the No. 2 spot.
Harris could be in line for additional duty on special teams as well. During OTAs, he took some reps at kickoff return, a task he performed a little in college at Troy and during his rookie year in Jacksonville. He averaged 22.0 yards on 14 kick returns for the Jaguars in 2011.
Given Randall Cobb’s prominent role on offense and Micah Hyde’s expected increased playing time on defense, the Packers could look at a number of different options in the return game. While rookie receiver Jared Abbrederis looks plenty natural returning punts, Harris has the combination of power and straight-line speed to be dangerous on kickoffs.
“He’s been spending a lot of extra time catching balls after practice and so forth,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He has that unique ability. His size, strength and explosiveness make him unique as a potential returner.”
As he reacquaints himself with the skill, Harris is keeping it simple.
“I can pretty much make one or two guys miss, and I trust my teammates to make blocks on everybody else,” he said. “It’s a way I can contribute to the team. They trust me back there to put the ball in my hands, so I have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The Packers’ plan last year was to take advantage of Lacy’s powerful running style and Harris’ change-of-pace qualities in the backfield. That didn’t materialize, while Starks settled into the primary backup role in Harris’ absence and then re-signed as a free agent in the offseason.
Time will tell how the roles get defined this year. After a year of separation from the team, during which the running game was rejuvenated, Harris believes he’ll have a place again. His instincts say so.
“Our depth at running back is something great, I think,” he said. “Other teams are really going to have a problem with us.”