GREEN BAY — There are many adjectives you could use to describe Green Bay Packers running back James Starks.
Fun-loving. Laid-back. Long-legged. Powerful.
But the one that always seems to take a front seat is injury-prone.
Going back to his senior year at the University at Buffalo when he sat out the entire season with a shoulder injury, Starks has spent more time in street clothes than he has in uniform.
Since being drafted in the sixth round in 2010, Starks has played in just 27 of 54 games, including playoffs. Were it not for his postseason bust-out during the Super Bowl XLV run, the best you could say about him is that he had potential.
Taking the hand-off from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and dashing around left end Saturday during the second day of training camp, it was hard not to notice Starks. Around the corner came a guy the Packers hadn’t seen before: lean, muscularly cut and free of any damaged muscles, ligaments or tendons.
“I’m trying to put that past me,” Starks said. “My job is to come in here and compete for a job. This off-season I focused on that and came in as healthy as I can and (will) put forth my best effort and compete for a spot. I feel better than I’ve ever felt.”
He should, after holing up at the Athletes Performance facility in Pensacola, Fla., for two months. When he met with coach Mike McCarthy in an exit interview after a six-game, 71-carry season, he told him he was disappointed in himself because he expected a lot more.
Walking away knowing he hadn’t been a factor since the middle of the 2011 season, Starks decided he was going to try to beat the injury problem. A natural runner who had relied a lot on his athletic ability, he vowed to work on his body during the off-season.
“James and I discussed multiple options for training,” his agent, Dave Butz, said. “He said that he was looking for more of an all-encompassing approach to maintaining his body.
“James has always been strong, he’s always been fast. The things he focused on the most were flexibility, diet and maintenance.”
Other than a two-week break, Starks spent the time between the end of the season and the start of the off-season conditioning program in Pensacola working out with other NFL players like Kansas City’s Glenn Dorsey, Tennessee’s Kenny Britt and former Packer Quinn Johnson.
It meant committing himself to being away from his family and friends in Buffalo and spending most of his time inside a gym busting his gut. It wasn’t just about lifting weights. It was about opening up his hips, tightening his core and relieving some of the tension on his leg muscles.
At the same time he was working out, the Packers were studying college backs, and when the draft came in April they selected Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. Starks claims he didn’t even watch the draft but admitted he wasn’t oblivious.
“I watch college football,” he said. “I knew who (Lacy) was. But I didn’t watch the draft. All it is, is just going to make competition better. It’s good to have them added to the roster, make everybody better, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
In addition to the two rookies, Starks is competing with 2012 darling DuJuan Harris and 2011 third-round pick Alex Green. Starks is arguably more talented than every one of them, but none of that matters if you’re not on the field.
During his three years with the Packers, Starks has missed time with hamstring, ankle, toe and knee injuries. None of them knocked him out for the season, but all rendered him unreliable.
When he has been healthy, he has averaged 4 yards a carry and busted off seven runs of 20 or more yards with a career long of 40.
“It seems like people have not really had a chance to see how good James really is,” Butz said. “It’s also important to note that although he has had what some would call a rather lengthy injury history, he doesn’t have a significant injury history. He has had some unfortunate minor issues that have kept him off the field at times, but the overall wear and tear on his body has been minimal.”
Starks said he’s hoping the work in Florida is the answer to eliminating the nagging injuries.
“I have stiff hips kind of that causes quad problems, hamstring problems, and I think that’s going to help me this year,” he said of the flexibility work. “So I’m loose, more opened up and things like that. I think it helps me not receive those kind of injuries and be more flexible when I’m getting bent up and things like that.”
Starks also has to stop being his worst enemy.
McCarthy has described him as a back who always falls forward for extra yards. Because of great power in his legs and upper body, Starks can keep runs alive even when one or two tacklers are on top of him.
But that style has also gotten him in trouble. When he refused to go down under the weight of a gang of tacklers in the preseason opener against San Diego last year, he wound up suffering a turf toe injury.
He didn’t come back until Week 3 of the regular season.
“Sometimes I go a little overboard because I’m strong,” Starks said. “I might stay up in some situations where I could just fall down and not get those kind of injuries.
“I’m going to be smarter this year. Of course I’m not going to change my style. I’m still going to be physical, but there’s certain hits that I think I took last season and seasons before where they weren’t necessary.”
In the final year of his contract, Starks simply can’t afford to be injured again. His career depends on it.