With DuJuan Harris out for season, Eddie Lacy leads the way
GREEN BAY, Wis. — One NFL personnel director called it a “quiet confidence.” When his team met with running back Eddie Lacy at the scouting combine in February, he was so quiet and selfless they wanted him to talk more about himself.
True, the Louisiana native shuns the spotlight. He’s not a fan of cameras or fame. But through the intensive draft process, Lacy did make his case very clear. If need be, he can carry the load for an offense.
In April: “I’m pretty much as complete as it gets.”
In May: “I have a very high pain tolerance. ...I’ll play through the whole game.”
In July: “You put me on the field and I’ll contribute.”
Now, as September nears, Lacy is primed to be the Green Bay Packers’ starting running back.
One late-camp injury is forcing the Packers to adjust their offense at the 11th hour. With DuJuan Harris placed on injured reserve Tuesday — out for the season with a patellar tendon injury — Green Bay likely will lean on Lacy a little more, count on another back to step up and need the receiving corps to maintain.
The timing of Harris’ injury is not ideal. Green Bay planned to use Lacy and Harris as a 1-2 punch. The shorter, stocky half of that equation now shelved for the season, Green Bay must chart a new course.
Thursday night’s game at Kansas City will be a factor in how the Packers rework their ground game.
“Last week was the first opportunity to play both DuJuan and Eddie Lacy as a 1-2 punch format. So that has now changed,” McCarthy said. “Obviously we have a game plan, a few things, and what happens in Kansas City will say a lot about the remaining players in that group and where they rank and how we prepare for San Francisco.”
Harris was in line to be the starter in Week 1. No player on the roster drew stronger praise from McCarthy. After initially suffering the patellar injury in organized team activities, Harris returned Aug. 12 and the coach called him “a damn good football player.”
On Tuesday, McCarthy was visibly dejected. A player banished by Pittsburgh, by Jacksonville and handpicked off the streets by Green Bay grew into a true weapon on an NFC contender. The team drafted Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, but neither pick altered the Packers’ plans for Harris.
After Harris suffered the injury against Seattle on Friday, McCarthy said he could “see it in his eyes coming off the field.” The patellar pain was back. It’s not torn, but Harris had a MRI after the game and the Packers realized a full recovery was needed.
“They made the decision that this was going to have to be done,” Harris said. “I can’t keep coming back and end up in pain and keep doing it and doing it. ...I knew it was bothering me. I couldn’t really run.”
The recovery may take six months, Harris estimated, although he’s not sure. Regardless, he said surgery is likely. Officially on injured reserve, he is done for the season, not eligible to be the Packers’ IR exemption.
For a 24-year-old who has overcome near-impossible odds, the proud Harris handled the aftermath of his injury with professionalism.
“I’m going to keep the same hunger. I’m going to keep the same attitude and everything,” Harris said. “After the surgery, I just have to work my butt off to get back to 100 percent and when I do, you’ll see me again. It’s definitely not the end of my career.
“Don’t think everything’s over because it’s not.”
For 2013, it is over. So what now?
One NFL personnel director said last week he was intrigued to see if McCarthy would stay patient with the run. He saw promise in a Lacy/Harris tag team. Now, for one, Lacy must stay healthy. At Alabama, he played through a litany of injuries — a hamstring, an elbow, a fused upper toe, a broken hand. In Green Bay, he may need to do the same.
Privately, the Packers’ brass has been very high on Lacy since Day 1. He should see a lot of touches.
McCarthy also made a point Tuesday that the “perimeter” players must step up. It helps that James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and Jermichael Finley are all healthy.
And, of course, the Packers need another running back to fill a role.
Alex Green may be the best bet. The third-year back who had trouble walking up and down stairs after games in 2012 — dealing with the aftermath of ACL recovery — is showing a lot more burst. In Green Bay’s 17-10 loss to Seattle, Green stretched a pitch wide left, patiently waited, cut back and gained 31 yards. He might double as the kick returner, too. On Tuesday, Green took the first return.
Since a fast start, James Starks has been buried on the depth chart. Franklin has struggled for stretches. Someone will be needed to join Lacy. If 2012 is any indicator, all will get an opportunity at some point.
The two incumbents — Green and Starks — may no longer serve as trade bait.
“You have to be excited about James Starks’ camp,” McCarthy said. “He has practiced every single day, something that has been important for him to do. His availability has been the highest of his career. ...And Alex Green, I’ve really felt a heightened productivity on special teams from Alex this year. He’s a legitimate kickoff returner.
“It’s a long year and you need them all. I think both of those guys had good training camps.”
Expect to see more of Lacy. Beyond that, stay tuned.
Injured most of OTAs and training camp, Harris has had a front-row seat to this entire group. While he won’t be participating, he said the group is ready to move on without him.
“We still have a stable,” Harris said. “Those guys are doing a good job. I know we’ve had a tough preseason so far but it’s preseason. You get all that stuff out of the way. I see those guys running pretty strong this year.”
Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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