Packers consider DuJuan Harris starting running back

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Drafting two running backs hasn’t changed the way that the Green Bay Packers view DuJuan Harris. The power of Eddie Lacy and the speed of Johnathan Franklin shown in training camp hasn’t elevated either of the two highly touted rookies up to starter status. Even as Harris stood on the sideline with a knee injury and watched the first 12 practices and one preseason game, coach Mike McCarthy never altered his perception of the former undrafted 24-year-old running back.

“I would classify him as a starter on our football team,” McCarthy said of Harris following Monday’s practice. “I have that confidence in him.”

That’s a lot more confidence than any coach had in Harris leading up to the 2011 draft, when every NFL team — including the Packers — passed on the 5-foot-8 running back at each opportunity after his productive career at Troy University.

It didn’t work out for Harris as a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars and he didn’t catch on with the Steelers during his four-day stay in Pittsburgh in the 2012 preseason. Out of the NFL entirely for eight weeks, Harris began selling used cars before Green Bay signed him to its practice squad midway through last season.

“DuJuan Harris being undrafted is probably one of the best things to ever happen to him, and the fact he was out of football,” McCarthy said. “There’s a different level of motivation for guys that go that route, in my opinion.

“Entitlement is abundant sometimes when you’re dealing with some of these guys coming into our league from college, and when you see a young man like DuJuan Harris, it’s refreshing to see how motivated he is.”

Harris hasn’t had a chance to do anything this year to earn his spot atop the Packers’ depth chart. Until Monday, he had been on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a knee injury that he would only describe as a “tweak.”

However, Harris clearly did enough late last season to make a strong impression on McCarthy. Taking over as the full-time starter just as Green Bay entered the playoffs, Harris ran for 100 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns in the Packers’ two postseason games.

“It took us awhile to get him ready last year, but I thought he finished the season very strong,” McCarthy said.

Harris isn’t outspoken, but he smiled as reporters informed him of McCarthy’s comments.

“If he believes in me, I believe in myself also,” Harris said. “I’m not going to let him down.”

Harris disagreed with McCarthy in one way, though. While Harris admitted that going undrafted “kind of puts that chip on your shoulder,” he didn’t think his future as an NFL player would have been any different had he been one of the 254 players selected that year.

“Really, the draft is all about that dollar,” Harris said. “Once you come down to it, at the end of the day, you’ve got to play football, so it’s really nothing. I really wanted to get drafted for my family, just so they could have something to cheer for. But other than that, I kind of knew that I’d be fine, I’d be playing somewhere in the NFL, drafted or not.”

Playing somewhere in the NFL is one thing. Having the head coach insert Harris as the starting running back despite him missing so much practice time is quite another.

“He’s a uniquely talented guy,” McCarthy said. “He’s not the tallest guy in the world. I’m sure that’s why, from a personnel evaluation standpoint, he was probably passed over.”

Harris has obviously heard the height remarks enough that it’s become an irksome topic for him.

“You know, some of the best running backs to play the game were short,” Harris said.

The Packers were committed this past offseason to improving their running game. After finishing no better than 20th in league rankings since 2009, general manager Ted Thompson drafted Lacy in the second round and traded up for Franklin in the fourth round. It seemed likely then that one of those two would be Green Bay’s starter when the regular season began.

“Really, competition is the name of the game,” Harris said. “I’m really not thinking about it.”

Apparently there wasn’t anything for Harris to worry about. Lacy has had dominant moments in training camp, running through and around teammates in practices and the annual intrasquad scrimmage. Franklin has also shown bursts in creating plays for the offense. But neither rookie running back has done enough to supplant Harris.

“That’s a great honor to help lead this team, but I’m just back and I’ve got to kind of get back into the groove of things,” Harris said. “I kind of know the offense a little bit more (this season), so I’m learning a lot more now and starting to understand better. Last year was last year. I’ve got to bring something new to the table this year.”

It appears that Harris will get every chance to show his improvement in his second year with the Packers.

As McCarthy noted, Harris being the top running back “doesn’t mean he goes out and plays every down.” But, for a player of Harris’ background to survive an extended training-camp injury and still emerge as the favorite shows how hopeful Green Bay is that he can be a major factor in an offense that wants to prove it can run the ball effectively this season.

“The young man is a damn good football player,” McCarthy said.

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter