With just two days remaining in the organized team activity phase of the team's offseason program and no indication that the Packers are interested in re-signing veteran free agent Ryan Grant, James Starks has become the focal point of the Green Bay running game.
About to enter his third season in the NFL, Starks is the most-tenured tailback on the team––at least if you don't count John Kuhn as a tailback.
To that end, there's a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Starks, and none more important than protecting Aaron Rodgers.
Blocking the defense
For as much as the Packers chuck the ball around the field, pass protection is as much a part of the running backs' job description as carrying the rock, and a focus of the team's offseason program.
"As far as depth of the running back group, I feel very good about their ability, where their aptitude is at this point," said head coach Mike McCarthy following Tuesday's practice, "because we do ask our backs to do a lot from a responsibility checklist, as far as the run and the protection in the passing game."
Because the Packers are led by the NFL's reigning MVP, Starks knows much of the team's success is tied to keeping defenders away from Rodgers.
And it's also why Starks is taking the responsibility for his safety seriously.
"A-Rod is a big part of our team," Starks told the local media. "He's our captain, he's a great leader. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the game, if not the best. We've got to keep him upright and healthy and let him do what he do."
Learning from a new coach
With so much of the team's success hinging upon the performance of Rodgers and the passing game, perhaps it's not surprising that the Packers hired a running backs coach with a quarterback background this offseason.
Alex Van Pelt has taken over the role vacated by Jerry Fontenot who has switched positions to become the team's tight ends coach. Van Pelt was previously the quarterbacks coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010 and 2011 and served various functions on the staff of the Buffalo Bills before that including offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and offensive quality control coach from 2006 to 2009.
So when McCarthy and the Packers hired Van Pelt, it makes sense that he'd be bringing a quarterback's perspective to a position known for carrying the football.
"You learn how to protect the quarterback a little bit better, because you've got to know the whole defenses. He's big on shades, knowing the protections, what you could get with a certain blitz or a certain formation on defense," Starks said of Van Pelt. "He's getting us a lot smarter. We're looking at it from like a quarterback's perspective. It's a lot easier once we're getting out there and just doing our job."
For as much as protecting the QB has been a priority, Starks is also committed to getting better as a runner too.
Improving as a runner
With guys like Kuhn and Alex Green coming off injuries last year and not taking part in the team's practices this offseason, Starks is the featured back among a thin group of players at his position.
The only other player with any experience is Brandon Saine, and he has all of 18 career carries to his name. Other than that, the Packers signed two undrafted running backs this year––Marc Tyler of USC and Du'ane Bennett of Minnesota––to round out the tailbacks.
With any luck, some of them will be able to contribute to the Packers in 2012, but Starks looks like the workhorse among them.
To do that, however, to bear the burden of receiving the majority of the team's carries, Starks has to stay healthy, something he hasn't been able to do much lately, either in college or the professional ranks.
Starks finished his college career as the University of Buffalo's all-time leading rusher but missed his entire senior season due to a shoulder injury.
He then missed the first nine games of his rookie season following a hamstring injury that made the Packers stash him on their physically unable to perform list. The rash of injuries have become fewer and less significant since that time, although.
No one associated with Packers football will forget what Starks meant to the team during their six-game winning streak from the end of the regular season to the Super Bowl during the 2010 season. He led the NFL in rushing during the postseason with 315 yards and helped bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown.
In 2011 Starks led the Packers in rushing with 578 yards, but he shared the load almost equally with Grant in part because Starks missed three games with nagging injuries to both his knee and his ankle.
"It's football, you never really know what's going to come about," said Starks. "Anybody can be on that bandwagon. Last year, I happened to get a little nicks and bruises here and there. Like I said, I'm just going to pray on it. God willing, I'll have an injury-free year and I'll keep getting better each day.
In order to stay healthy Starks has made a few changes to his training regimen such as building more endurance so his legs don't tire and stretching more often during the evening hours.
He hopes that will allow him to stay on the field this year, because the Packers may need him.
"I'm getting better, getting my legs and stuff," said Starks. "You get tired a little faster, but conditioning and stuff is helping me just trying to finish through the continue through the cone, trying to continue blocking and what I need to do to get better. That's my big objective this year."
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