GREEN BAY — Cedric Benson may have gone from out-of-work running back with no prospects to Green Bay Packers starter in a matter of a week.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Sunday that third-year pro James Starks will be sidelined with turf toe at least a couple of weeks, making it almost a certainty he won’t be ready for a significant role come the San Francisco 49ers game Sept. 9.
That leaves the newly signed Benson, an eight-year veteran with 1,529 career carries, and Alex Green , a second-year back with three career carries, to compete for the top job.
Given Benson’s experience and Green’s lack of it — not to mention a knee that underwent major surgery last year — it’s obvious the veteran is the likely starter. All Benson has to do is show that he’s close to the same player who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
On Sunday, he practiced in pads for the first time since signing Aug. 12 and appeared to have the freshest legs of anyone on the field.
“I had a lot of fun running around, getting some live reads, guys coming off the ball, defensive line coming off the ball,” he said. “I was able to make some moves in the secondary. It felt good to run around and it felt good to get into the rhythm of tackle football.”
Though Benson hadn’t carried a football since Jan. 7, McCarthy said he could see some of the things that made the 29-year-old back a featured part of the Bengals offense. Benson shared carries with Green during team drills and ran with his usual intuitiveness and balance.
He isn’t the breakaway threat that Green is, but he has the between-the-tackles ability that the Packers have lacked recently.
“I thought he was fast to the hole,” McCarthy said. “I was impressed with him. There were a couple of runs where you could see his natural inside-run instincts where he drops his weight.
“His footwork, I don’t expect it to be right on the money, especially with our quarterbacks and what we’re asking him to do compared to what he’s done in the past. But I thought he had a good day.”
Benson declared the day he signed his one-year, $825,000 minimum-wage deal that he was in good shape. Based on the way he ran, he didn’t seem to be gasping for air.
“I felt like I was in the best shape I could have been coming in,” he said. “But it’s always a different animal when you have those shoulder pads on, you have them strapped tight and you’re trying to breathe and stuff. I got a little winded at times but was able to recover fast.”
Benson is expected to play against his old team Thursday night in Cincinnati, which should add a little spice to his Packers debut. Provided he makes it through the week without any physical issues, he should have a chance to tote the ball more than just a handful of times.
“It’s going to be fun, to say the least,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back out there. I know I have a lot of support from the fans out there. And it will be good to go against that defense.”
Clear thinking: One of the reasons wide receiver Greg Jennings needed two weeks to return from a concussion appears to be that he already was suffering headaches from a collision two days earlier.
Jennings returned to practice Sunday, the first time he had been on the field since the scrimmage Aug. 3. He said every time he tried to come back he could feel he wasn’t ready and had to be honest with himself.
“As easy as it sounds to be honest, it’s tough when it comes to a situation like that because you want to get back out there, but you don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way. It was tough coming in here some days feeling whatever I was feeling and wanting to say, ‘I’m good,’ knowing in the back of my mind that I wasn’t.”
Jennings was diagnosed with a concussion after taking a hit in the scrimmage.
“I hit my head on the ground, split my nose,” Jennings said. “But it was probably a little bit before that. Got hit Wednesday, practiced, finished practice. The next day, headaches during practice. Didn’t think anything of it. Friday, Family Night, I probably re-aggravated it.
“I make it sound like it was minor. It really wasn’t.”
Besides headaches, Jennings said he also felt pressure in his head. He said he was banned from the weight room and wasn’t allowed to do much physical activity until the trainers were convinced he was ready.
He said staying conditioned was difficult and he went out in practice Sunday trying to take as many snaps as possible.
“For me, it’s about getting back in shape,” Jennings said. “I’ve been, I mean, shut down completely for two weeks. When I say shut down completely, they wouldn’t let me walk into the weight room, they wouldn’t let me see a treadmill, they wouldn’t let me see anything. It’s going to be different for me, just getting my wind back.”
He said he felt “great” and expected to play Thursday against Cincinnati.
Better safe than sorry: Tight end Jermichael Finley said the smartest thing he could have done was to sit out until his pulled thigh muscle healed.
Finley was sidelined 12 days and missed both exhibition games to make sure the injury didn’t come back to bite him later in the season. He said given the way he attacks practice, he wouldn’t have been able to ease off when his leg started to hurt.
“It takes time,” Finley said. “The last thing I want is for it to come back, especially when I can take care of it in the preseason. “
Like Jennings, Finley said he’ll have to work on conditioning this week and hopes to play against the Bengals.
Fight to the bitter end: Rookie Casey Hayward said he was not discouraged that Jarrett Bush was back at the right cornerback spot Sunday.
Hayward said it was made clear that both he and Davon House were going to get shots at working with the No. 1 unit during camp. And with Sam Shields returning from an elbow injury, Hayward expects him to get a turn also.
“Bush didn’t do anything to lose the job,” Hayward said. “They just wanted to see how we ran with the ones. Bush has played well. He’s done a lot of good things.”
Hayward said he could have played some off-coverage better than he did but overall thought he did well.