Opposite Paths For Running Backs

James Starks, the sixth-round pick with the impressive skill-set, is losing ground to productive and tough undrafted rookie Quinn Porter. We talked to offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who raves about Porter, and Starks, who hopes to return soon.

It's a phrase so popular that every NFL fan has heard it a hundred times: "You can't make the club in the tub."

The one late-round draft pick who excited the team and the fans was sixth-round running back James Starks, who was a productive runner and receiver in a pro-style offense at Buffalo. The one undrafted rookie who couldn't have possibly flown any further under the radar was Quinn Porter, a running back from someplace called Stillman, a Division II school.

Starks, however, missed parts of the offseason program with a strained hamstring and hasn't taken a single snap during training camp. Porter has seized the opportunity and is one of the big surprises during the first 11 days of camp.

"It's very, very frustrating," Starks told Packer Report this week. "Things happen and it's just a little setback, just a little unlucky these past few weeks. I've been striving and I'm getting better, so I'll be out there soon."

He needs to get out there soon, because the coaches can't stop raving about Porter. Like Starks, Porter was a productive runner and receiver in college. He's remarkably explosive through the hole with an impressive ability to cut and accelerate. To get on the field in the Packers' offense, a running back must show he can be strong in pass protection. Porter's desire has been a revelation.

"He's tough. He's a football player. I love him, I love him that he doesn't back down," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said after Tuesday morning's practice. "I was telling somebody, I forget who blitzed as a linebacker yesterday, we had a couple times where we didn't protect the quarterback very well. This guy, I'm going to say he's 208 pounds, I could be off by a couple (actually, he's listed at 6-foot, 205), but that son of a gun steps up there and he keeps his body right and square, nose to nose with the guy. He's not perfect yet, but I love the way he steps up in blitz protection, I absolutely love it. And he's got some quickness and he's got some football in him, stuff that you like to see."

Starks was arguably the top pass-catching running back in the draft, with a three-year total of 127 catches. He wouldn't have plunged into the sixth round if not for a lengthy injury history, including a shoulder injury that kept him out for all of his senior season. The hamstring problems that have dogged him since arriving in Green Bay, however, are reducing his chances of making the roster on a daily basis.

"You can't make a good evaluation until you have a body of work to look at," Philbin said. "It's tough, it's a challenge. I'm sure he's doing everything he can, I'm sure he's not happy about sitting around and watching all this football being played while he's in a pair of shorts. Hopefully for his sake, he'll get an opportunity to get on the field."

Starks hopes that day is coming soon, though he said there's no timetable for his return. He's been rehabbing it every day, doing a little running and lifting to keep in shape, and working on his fundamentals behind the scenes with running backs coach Edgar Bennett. And his nose has been buried in the playbook, though he acknowledges he can only learn so much without putting the X's and O's into action on the practice field.

"I've been punching the bag a little, been doing a lot of studying the playbook and trying to learn as much as I can so I don't get out there and be so far behind that I'm a setback for the team," Starks said. "I've been trying to keep up with the mental preparation as much as I can."

Starks is walking the fine line of getting himself healthy enough so that he can contribute and not aggravate the injury, and waiting so long that he has no chance to beat our Porter or Kregg Lumpkin for the third spot in the backfield.

"It's all competition. I'm not calling myself out of the running," Starks said. "Everybody's here for a job, everybody knows why they're here. We want to go to the championship. If I'm not the person that they choose or they feel there's a different running back, regardless of anything, I'm going to give my all. (Porter is) doing great and that just ups the competition."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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