Continuing with the theme of young Green Bay Packers that could make a big step this year, we’re going to spend this Simple Fan’s Perspective on a player that the coaching staff, in particular Coach McCarthy, seem to be very excited about - RB DuJuan Harris. After coming in off the street (literally) in 2012 and providing a spark in the final third of the season, Harris was pencilled in as the starter in 2013 before being injured in the pre-season and missing the entire year. Early reports following OTAs and mini-camps this spring have been that Harris is again impressing the coaches. Obviously the expectations have been muted a bit, with both Eddie Lacy and James Starks slotted above him in the depth chart - that being said, this could be considered a make-or-break season for Harris with the Packers. If he is unable to make an impact this year, he very likely could be gone from the team by this time next summer.
As DuJuan Harris’ only action came back in 2012, I did not have a solid sense of what this player brought to the table, and I decided to look back at two of his performances that season - his first game, against Detroit in week 14, and his final game, in the second round of the playoffs against San Francisco. He played well in other games in between those two (in particular the playoff game against Minnesota), but the two games against Detroit and San Francisco were probably the toughest defensive lines Harris would have played against.
Coming into the Week 14 matchup with Detroit, Green Bay was in the driver’s seat for another division title, while Detroit was languishing at the bottom of the standings. Harris only ended up with 7 carries on the day, but made the most of his touches, including the first play from scrimmage for the Packer offense. It was a simple sweep to the right, but Harris played it perfectly, following his blocking downfield - including a nice seal block by Don Barclay and excellent blocks by Randall Cobb and James Jones. When Harris is finally touched 8 yards downfield, he completely blows up the first defender, rolling over him for another 3 yards.
For the rest of the game, Harris showed that when his offensive line made their blocks, he was there to take advantage of them. Green Bay got the ball at the Detroit 42 early in the 4th quarter, and with the game tied at 17, the Packer offense went old-school, calling 6 straight running plays before Harris broke through the line on play #7, rumbling untouched up the middle for a 14 yard touchdown. Again, the blocking was exactly as the coaches drew it up, and Harris’ touchdown gave Green Bay a lead they would not relinquish.
After that point, Detroit seemed to wise up and realize that Green Bay was featuring a tougher running game than they had perhaps bargained for. The running attempts for the rest of the day tended to be bottled up. However, Harris showed a consistent ability to hit the hole hard, when it was available to him, and rarely if ever was he brought down by the first tackler.
Five games later, the biggest change for DuJuan Harris was the fact that he was now involved in the passing game for Green Bay, which showed an improved trust by the coaching staff. His biggest day in the passing game actually came in the first game of the post-season, against Minnesota, when he caught 5 passes for 53 yards. Obviously for a team built like Green Bay, having the ability to stay in during passing plays, helping with blitz pickup, and being used as a safety valve is huge to a running back’s ability to stay in the lineup. Harris only caught 2 passes for 11 yards in the game against San Francisco, but his ability to stay in during passing plays and make at least some sort of contribution helped to keep the defense guessing - unlike his early games, which, as far as I could tell, he was only on the field when he was getting the ball.
The touchdown against San Francisco in the playoffs was another example of what Harris could do when he got through the line of scrimmage untouched. Guard TJ Lang did an excellent job of getting to the second level quickly and blocking the linebacker, and Harris was able to accelerate around him and run through the attempted arm tackles on his way to the endzone. This play again showed Harris’ ability to make some good moves in space while also powering through attempted tackles.
The biggest thing I noticed from re-watching DuJuan Harris was that he was deceptively fast and smooth in the open field. Rarely did a defender get a clean hit on Harris once he was free of the line of scrimmage, and the times that they did, the defender usually got the worst of the impact. Very simply, what stuck out at me was the fact that if Harris made it through the line of scrimmage, he would almost always gain 4 or more yards. If he was bottled up at the point of attack, it was almost always a 2 yard gain or less.
So looking forward, does DuJuan Harris have a place on a Packer’s depth chart that seems to have Eddie Lacy and James Starks solidly positioned at the top? When I first wrote that sentence, Johnathan Franklin was still a Green Bay Packer and a legitimate contender for the 3rd running back spot. However, with Franklin’s retirement from football, Harris now becomes even more valuable as a potential change-of-pace back. He shows good ability to change direction in the open field and definitely delivers a punch worthy of either of the top two backs on the roster. Expanding his comfort and ability in the passing game should help him immensely, considering his natural shiftiness. Against defensive lines that the Packer O-Line can move around, he could easily match or exceed his career 4.6 yard per carry average.
Overall, I can now understand why the Packer coaching staff has shown so much excitement in the continued development of DuJuan Harris - if everyone can manage to stay healthy, this could turn out to be a very interesting and productive year for the Green Bay ground game. Honestly, I’m excited about the possibilities of long, drawn-out, clock-eating drives in the 4th quarter that simply involve Aaron Rodgers handing the ball off and the offense line shoving a tired defense down the field. With the pass-heavy slant of Green Bay’s offense in the past decade, that’s probably the scariest thing I could imagine for the Packer’s foes!