After not playing in a game for 23 months – dating to the International Bowl on Jan. 3, 2009, as a junior at the University of Buffalo – the Green Bay Packers' rookie running back debuted with 18 carries for 73 yards. That total, along with his 4.1 yards per carry, led all running backs on the day. Starks even chipped in 25 yards on two pooch kickoff returns – something he hadn't done since high school – as the Packers downed the 49ers 34-16.
Most expected Starks, who had been out since summer with a hamstring injury and missed his entire senior season with a shoulder injury, to be eased into the lineup with some play on special teams and a handful of snaps from scrimmage. Instead, his 18 carries equaled the most by a Packers running back all season. Starks was as surprised as anyone to come in on the team's third offensive play and end up with that kind of workload he got. In fact, he had no clue it was coming.
"I was just keeping my eyes open and whatever was asked of me, I was ready for it," said a beaming Starks. "I had prepared well in practice, so I was ready for the opportunity."
For an offense that had become one-dimensional and struggled to get consistent performances on the ground – especially in short-yardage situations – there was an undercurrent of optimism with Starks suiting up.
"I thought he did some good things," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I'll have to watch the tape but it looked like he fell forward for the most part and he protected the ball, which is the No. 1 thing that you're always looking for when you have a guy that hasn't been tackled a lot since you've been around him. So, he held onto the ball, which was the No. 1 greatest thing he did, and it looked like he ran the ball relatively well."
While the Packers never would come out and say they were looking for a small-school, sixth-round draft pick who hadn't played in nearly two years to put some juice into their rushing attack, there was a reason they didn't place him on the season-ending injured reserve list weeks ago. This was it.
Those 73 yards by Starks were the most by a Packers' rookie running back in his first game since Ralph Earhart ripped off 78 yards at Boston on Sept. 17, 1948. Green Bay might've been wearing throwback uniforms from their 1929 season on Sunday, but that stat is as good a tribute to the past as any.
"James Starks is a really talented young man," coach Mike McCarthy said. "The goal was to try to get him probably eight to 10 carries. I wanted to see how he would handle it. I thought he improved as the game went on. I'm pleased with his individual performance. I'm sure throughout the film study there will be some things we can improve on – pad level, ball security. He did a nice job."
While Brandon Jackson has performed admirably, racking up a team-leading 527 rushing yards after starter Ryan Grant went down in the season opener, he's ideally suited as a third-down back. He excels in blitz pick-up, is the team's most-sure handed back and can find big yards on a screen pass, as he did on Sunday with a 37-yard gain.
Jackson, who had 18 carries in the game in which Grant went down but not more than 15 since, is productive, to be sure. But he's not the most powerful or instinctive back out of the backfield and is not enough of a threat to force defenses to back off on defending the pass.
Starks, however, is a different sort of back. At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, he is a big body with burst. Those two factors were on display several times when he fought for extra yards, including his third carry of the game, when he dragged Niners linebacker Takeo Spikes on a 9-yard gain. Facing one of the league's top run defenses, only two of Starks' 18 carries didn't net positive yards, settling for no gain on both. That fact, as much as his anything, is what stood out for his coach.
"I thought he performed very well and was very impressed, particularly with the way he fell forward for 1 or 2 yards on a number of his carries," McCarthy said. "He's off to a good start."
Half of Starks' carries came during the Packers' longest drive of the season, a 17-play march that took 8:35 off the clock and basically ended the game. It was on the second play of that drive when Starks shot behind left guard Daryn Colledge for 16 yards, his longest gain of the day.
"The line did a great job, they stayed square, I hit the hole and was like, ‘Man, it's kind of open,' and a guy hit me and I just kept churning my feet like Coach EB (Edgar Bennett) tells me and like we practice," Starks said.
Running as hard at the end of the game as he was at the beginning, Starks was not rusty, not tired and definitely not satisfied. He talked about the yards he thought he left on the field as much as the ones he got, and is looking for the chance to capitalize on them next time.
"I was just excited for the opportunity and hopefully they like me a little more," he said. "But I'm just going to continue to be myself and keep working hard trying to get better. You work hard, hard work pays off."
The real payoff will be if Starks can build on what he did against the 49ers over the next four games and, hopefully, into January. It's just one game, and he won't be pushing Jackson out of the starter's seat anytime soon, but Starks adds a dangerous dimension to a potent offense. At this stage of the season, that may be just what Green Bay needs.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.