James Starks let the cat out of the bag.
The rookie running back will make his NFL debut on Sunday against San Francisco.
“I should be playing, from what I know, special teams and everything. I should be good to go,” Starks told Packer Report on Friday.
Coach Mike McCarthy had said that Starks and Dimitri Nance would compete to be the second halfback spot behind Brandon Jackson, and he gave no hint on which direction he would turn during Friday’s news conference. But Starks figured he’d get the call and Nance, who suffered a concussion last week at Atlanta, said he handled only the scout team reps all week.
Starks, a sixth-round choice out of Buffalo, hasn’t played in a game since Jan. 3, 2009, with his senior season lost due to shoulder surgery in August 2009. With Green Bay, he missed most of the offseason work and all of training camp with a strained and then torn hamstring.
It’s been a long time since Starks has been hit, which has led to a cautious approach by the coaching staff. But as offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Thursday, the team needs to find out at some point, and that point appears to be this week with the Packers (7-4) hosting the 49ers (4-7) in a battle of teams who trail their divisions’ leaders by one game.
“He continues to get better and work on his fundamentals and get comfortable with our scheme and what we’re asking him to do,” running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. “It’s been extremely positive. In all of the situations that we’ve put him in, certainly some extremely competitive, he stepped up to the challenge. We see this kid continuing to improve. At some point, he’ll probably get an opportunity and he’ll respond.”
At 6-foot-2, Starks presents an inviting target for an aggressive 49ers defense. Compound that with the fact Starks hasn’t seen live action in 23 months, and ball-security is first and foremost on the minds of the offensive coaches.
That’s been an emphasis ever since Starks was allowed to practice after spending the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list, with Starks getting extra time in inside linebackers coach Winston Moss’ daily ball-security drills.
“I get hit by my teammates so I’ve been getting used to that,” he said. “I’m used to contract. I’ve prepared well for it to simulate getting hit. Every day in practice, that’s what we train for, with strips and the defense constantly trying to get the ball from me and I’ve been doing a good job. I’m going to be conscious of it. Just hold the ball high and tight and just play. I’m a running back. You’re going to get hit.”
In the last two games, Jackson and Nance have averaged 2.5 yards per carry. While that doesn’t all fall on the backs, clearly, the running game could use a spark. Starks hopes he can provide it in his first game action in what has seemed like an eternity.
“It feels like it’s been like six years,” he said. “I’m excited. I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”
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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 email@example.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.