Running back DuJuan Harris was taken off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list on Monday and practiced for the first time with the Green Bay Packers since last season.
“I love the team, and I love my teammates, and I’m happy to be back with them,” said Harris after practice on Monday. “I’ve been missing them a lot since I’ve been gone. It’s been a little long, but now I’m back home.”
Harris hasn’t been able to participate in a practice environment since last season ended. Even during the team’s offseason program that spanned May and June, Harris was recovering from offseason surgery that saw him have a softball-sized cyst removed from his lung.
Seemingly having put his surgical operation behind him, Harris was sidelined at the beginning of training camp by a knee injury, which he described as only a “tweak.” Still, it was enough to keep him out of the first 11 practices and the first preseason game of the 2013 season.
“I was ready to get back out, but I’m not the expert with injuries,” said the soft-spoken Harris. “They told me I had to wait, so that’s what I did, listened to them, did everything I had to do, did my rehab.”
Harris originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and spent that season between the team’s practice squad and their 53-man roster, having gotten a cup of coffee by playing in five games late in the year.
Cut during training camp in 2012, Harris was briefly signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers but released just days later. He then was added to the Packers’ practice squad at midseason and elevated to the team’s roster late in the year.
By season’s end, Harris had become Green Bay’s starter at running back, getting the nod in Weeks 14 and 16 and then both of the team’s playoff games. Even though he rushed for just 257 yards (including playoffs), he led all Packers running backs in average yards per carry with a figure of 4.6 during the regular season.
The makeup of running back position in Green Bay has changed remarkably since Harris’ successful 2012 campaign. General manager Ted Thompson wasted no time spending two selections in the first four rounds of the NFL draft on running backs, adding highly-touted rookies Eddie Lacy out of Alabama and Johnathan Franklin out of UCLA.
There’s been a conscious decision to give the running game a new injection in Green Bay, but for his part, Harris isn’t fazed by the newest additions and the threats to his playing time.
“Really, competition is the name of the game,” said Harris. “We’re always happy to be back together and get our work done. I’m not really thinking about. I’m just trying to help the team as best as I can.”
When the Packers released their depth chart for the first time during the 2013 season last week, Harris was still listed as the starter despite missing so much practice time over the past several months.
Head coach Mike McCarthy reaffirmed his confidence in Harris during his press conference on Monday, paraphrased by the team’s Twitter account as saying, “The way he finished last season, I would classify him as a starter at RB. Doesn’t mean he plays every down.”
Perhaps that will be Harris’ role in 2013, starting each game but sharing time with the other backs on a rotational basis. Still, before that can happen, Harris has to prove his various ailments are behind him.
Roster spots at the running back are at a premium in Green Bay with the influx of talent at the position. In addition to the draft choices, veterans holdovers James Starks and Alex Green continue to battle for perhaps one berth between them. Undrafted rookie Angelo Pease of Kansas State is in the mix as well.
With Lacy out nursing a hamstring injury, Starks started the Packers’ first preseason against the Arizona Cardinals on Friday, but did little to rejuvenate the team’s rushing attack. The Packers averaged a paltry 3.1 yards on 29 carries. The statistics wouldn’t have even looked that pretty were it not for long rushes by the quarterbacks of six yards by Vince Young and seven yards by Graham Harrell.
Now that Harris is finally cleared for a return to action, he’ll be looking to help the team out in its efforts to improve the Packers ground game, and he hopes to prove to McCarthy that he deserves to play with the first-string.
“If he believes in me, I believe in myself also,” said Harris. “I’m not going to let him down.”