James Starks' main concern in 2014 is his health
GREEN BAY—Usually when James Starks stands at his locker, he's discussing an injury. After this minicamp practice, the Green Bay Packers running back cracks a smile, fully aware of the narrative.
He's a true thoroughbred … when healthy. A game changer … when healthy. In four seasons, Starks has played in 41 of a possible 72 games.
The 28-year-old from Niagara Falls, New York, is as soft-spoken as they come in the locker room. But even Starks knows what he can do … when healthy.
“I feel I can be pretty great,” Starks said. “I don't like talking about myself too much. But I think I can be real good. If I'm healthy, I can do a lot.”
Right now, Starks is 100 percent. He's back on a two-year pact that now makes a lot of sense with a neck injury ending Johnathan Franklin's career in Green Bay. The No. 1 objective for the former sixth-round pick Starks has not changed—stay available. He believes he's fresh off his best season. With Eddie Lacy, the 6-foot-2, 217-pounder could form one of the league's top 1-2 punches.
So with help from new position coach Sam Gash and continual maintenance, Starks aims to avoid the infirmary in 2014.
You only need to replay his 41-yard run at Chicago or tackle-breaking 25-yard touchdown at Minnesota to see what happens when he does.
“I kind of do it all,” said Starks, who rushed for 493 yards on 89 attempts (5.5 avg.) last season with three touchdowns. “I can break a big run. I'm powerful. I can catch out of the backfield. I'm shifty to make guys miss. So I think I'm pretty well-rounded in each area.”
As the starting fullback in New England, Buffalo and Baltimore, Gash blocked for running backs built to last.
In 11 seasons, Hall of Famer Curtis Martin missed eight games. In his first 11 seasons, Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas missed eight games. In his first eight seasons, Jamal Lewis missed a grand total of six games.
Up close, Gash could see why. All three kept their balance.
“They weren't on the ground a lot, falling down in practice,” Gash said. “They always stayed on their feet and were in control of their bodies—and moving. I think that has some correlation to being in control of you and stopping all those little nagging injuries.”
In Starks' four seasons, he has been sidelined by a pulled hamstring (11 games, 2010), an ankle injury (three games, 2011), a turf toe (five games, 2012), a bone bruise in his knee (five games, 2012) and another knee injury (three games, 2013).
Gash spent three seasons with the Bills, and he says he's been tracking the former University at Buffalo back for years. He calls Starks a violent runner, one who “runs hard all the time.”
But he also wants him to run more under control.
“Just at the end of runs,” Gash said. “Instead of when you're getting ready to hit a guy and really hitting him and going to the ground, good athletes stay on their feet. So you talk to guys about having the balance—instead of hitting, giving a guy everything you've got and going down, give him what you've got with a little different technique. Stay level.”
Yet recklessness is also what separates Starks. He prefers to punish, not dance. Ask Washington's Brandon Meriweather, the concussed recipient of a vicious Starks right shoulder.
When this 2013 Week 2 run is brought up to Gash, he cuts in. Starks stayed on his feet that run, he notes. He was “hitting on the rise.” Hit a tackler “on the rise,” he said, and that's what happens.
“Everybody who plays has a little recklessness. You're a little off-kilter,” Gash said. “The guys that do it best harness that craziness, that edginess, that recklessness. They harness it and channel it to hitting on the rise, being able to hit and spin, keeping balance, keeping their feet moving.”
Less wreckage at the point of contact should help. Starks also believes he's now taking the proper precautionary measures off the field. He's “prehabbing” more. No, Starks hasn't hopped on that yoga bandwagon to East De Pere yet, but he is stretching more these days. He's still following that gluten-free diet. He's remembering to eat before and after practice.
And working out, Starks focuses more on his core than ever. Every weightlifting session ends with an ab/core workout. He cycles through exercises with bands and medicine balls to strengthen his foundation.
“That's what your body is running off,” Starks said. “I just think your core area, you strengthen those and everything around it goes.”
This is a personal responsibility Starks has learned in time. As he said, staying healthy is ultimately on the player.
“We're professional athletes. Those are our choices,” Starks said. “If we're not being responsible for our bodies and we get hurt, that's on us. So we can't wait for coaches to say anything to us. We're grown men.”
Franklin is out. But the state of the Packers' ground game hasn't been this strong in years. The 6-foot-2 Starks, 5-foot-7 DuJuan Harris and much, much larger Lacy offer starkly different styles.
Yes, Starks says he did have a visit with the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up in free agency, but he wanted to stay in Green Bay all along. He canceled that visit and inked a two-year, $3.165 million deal to stay as Lacy's running mate.
While there remains no concern from coach Mike McCarthy about the beating Lacy takes—he said this spring, “Eddie puts the beating on”—Starks is ready to run when needed.
With Starks, there's no need for Lacy to carry the ball 20-25 times every week.
“He can handle anything Coach gives to him,” Starks said of Lacy. “For him to be tired sometimes, I can come in and spell him…. We don't have to put everything on his shoulders. He knows he's got people who can back him up.”
McCarthy seemed visibly irritated about players missing the entire spring, but there is one silver lining. James Starks, so often sidelined in sweats his first four years, didn't miss a day.
When the pads come on a month-plus from now, he'll try to harness his rage.
“I work hard every day,” Starks said. “That's my goal—to stay healthy.”