Running the Ball is Least of Starks' Concerns

The rookie running back, who has been activated from the physically unable to perform list, spent Monday's practice masquerading as Adrian Peterson as the Packers prepare for the Vikings. It's Tony Romo, not Peterson, that is the big thing for Starks.

One look at James Starks' stats shows that the big running back can play.

While he didn't play against Big Ten or Southeastern Conference competition at Buffalo, Starks rushed for 3,140 yards, caught 127 passes and scored 37 total touchdowns in three seasons.

"He's a talented young man, there's no question," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday.

But can the muscular 6-foot-2, 218-pound Starks — fresh off the physically unable to perform list after tearing his hamstring during the pre-training camp conditioning test — possibly help the Green Bay Packers' offense this year?

From one perspective, the answer is a resounding yes. Brandon Jackson has shown the occasional knack for slipping through a crack and breaking off a 10- or 15-yard run. John Kuhn has shown the knack for turning a short gain into something more because of his power.

However, neither are putting the fear of death into opposing defenses. Jackson is averaging a decent 4.3 yards per carry but 11 of his 108 carries have lost yardage. Kuhn is something of a folk hero at Lambeau Field but for every 3-yard gain he's turned into 5 yards, he's turned some 10-yard gains into 4-yarders because of his lack of explosion.

Starks — who had the seventh-fastest 40-yard time among running backs at the Scouting Combine at 4.50 seconds — has that explosion, which is why he's spending the week masquerading as Adrian Peterson as the Packers prepare for Sunday's game at Minnesota.

"He had the No. 28 jersey on, and he looked dang good in it today," McCarthy said. "He's a big, physical, athletic runner. He's got a lot to learn. He needs the details of the little work, the little things that you get into in the team periods. I think we had 24 plays of the opponent team, and he may have ran the ball on 18 of them, and that's exactly what he needs, because that's what he missed. He missed a big part of the spring, he missed all of training camp. He's missed a lot of football."

However, more than most teams in the NFL — more than perhaps any team in the NFL — the Packers demand that their running backs excel in pass protection.

It's not a point that should be overlooked.

Dallas' season ended when fullback Chris Gronkowski blew a blitz pickup that resulted in Tony Romo getting sacked and breaking his collarbone. A couple weeks later, when Dallas visited Green Bay, running back Felix Jones blew a blitz pickup and Desmond Bishop flattened Jon Kitna and forced a fumble.

Just like Dallas with Romo, Aaron Rodgers is the face of the Green Bay Packers and the team's most important player. Can the Packers really put Rodgers' health in the hands of a player who, because of a shoulder injury that ruined his senior year, hasn't had any live action since Buffalo's bowl game at the end of the 2008 season?

The mental part shouldn't be an issue. Starks should know the Packers' protection scheme. He watched every practice from behind the offense during training camp and while unable to practice while on the PUP list, and he's been in on all of the meetings. But knowing it and doing it are two different things. Starks said he protected the quarterback frequently while at Buffalo because he was a three-down back. But he hasn't shown he can do that in the NFL because he missed training camp and the Packers don't do full-go live drills once the season begins.

"You do the best you can in your practice structure. But I agree with the point you're trying to make," McCarthy said. "There's a significant difference between practice and games. But he doesn't lack for anything physically. I'll say that about him. And (running backs coach) Edgar Bennett is an excellent teacher, and we'll continue to work with him before and after practice to get him ready."

Starks knows that's what's standing between him and getting on the field. It's not as easy as simply putting Starks on the field for running plays. Any defensive coordinator with an IQ of more than 10 will be able to pick up on that trend.

"I get better at that every day, too," Starks said of pass protection. "Coach EB emphasizes that so much — protecting Rodgers, protecting Rodgers. I want to be able to do that. If I can't do that, I'm not going to be able to play. I make sure I'm getting better at that every day."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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