Packers: Big battle for backup running back job

Alonzo Harris’ delivery, much like his 25-yard touchdown run against the defending Super Bowl champs a few nights earlier, was perfect.

The Green Bay Packers undrafted rookie free-agent running back was sitting at his locker late last week, in the wake of Thursday night’s preseason-opening victory at New England, discussing the three-way battle – among him, Rajion Neal and John Crockett – for the Packers’ No. 3 running back job behind starter Eddie Lacy and steady backup James Starks.

“It’s probably the biggest competition in the National Football League right now,” Harris said, stone-faced. [Awkward three-second pause, followed by hearty belly laugh.] “Nah, I’m just playing,”

Although a competition among three guys who went undrafted for a job that might not result in a single meaningful rushing attempt – last season, third running back DuJuan Harris carried 16 times for 64 yards – may not make for the most compelling theater, the threesome made things interesting with their performances in the preseason opener after a quiet two weeks of training camp.

Harris carried seven times for 41 yards, including his burst-around-the-end 25-yard TD; Crockett carried 10 times for only 26 yards but scored on a 10-yard catch-and-run; and Neal, who was off to a strong start in camp last summer before being felled by a knee injury, ran four times for 15 yards and caught two passes out of the backfield.

“I thought the runners ran well,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “They ran smart. From a decision standpoint – you always start with that – there’s definitely some reads you can coach off of, teach off of. But they ran with body lean and did a good job after contact. I thought the running back group had a good night.

Whether they show enough to merit a spot on the 53-man roster as the Packers go into the Sept. 13 regular-season opener at Chicago is another matter. McCarthy said last week that for roster purposes, he groups the running backs, fullbacks and tight ends together, and with the team having drafted Oklahoma fullback Aaron Ripkowski to be a special-teams dynamo and a younger version of old vet John Kuhn, it’s conceivable that the Packers would carry two fullbacks, three or four tight ends and only keep Lacy and Starks on the 53-man roster, putting a halfback or two on the 10-man practice squad instead. In such a scenario, Kuhn would be the de facto third halfback.

In addition, as running backs coach Sam Gash pointed out, special teams will also have a “very big bearing” on the decision.

Of course, the way Harris, Crockett and Neal have flashed in the past few days, they may make it impossible for the Packers to not keep at least one of them.

“None of us knows what’s going to happen, if we’ll be here tomorrow. All of us come in and give our hearts, our bodies – our souls, daily,” Harris said. “We don’t know what the outcome will be. We have to come in, be prepared for anything and everything and just give it [our] all.”

While it’d be unfair to say Neal has the inside track on the No. 3 job, he does have the advantage of experience in the system. He made a strong first impression in last year’s preseason opener at Tennessee, where the ex-University of Tennessee Volunteer ran five times for 39 yards and a touchdown. But it ended up being his only game-day impression, as a knee injury led to an injury settlement and a ticket to the practice squad once that deal expired. Neal spent the final eight weeks of the regular season and playoffs on the practice squad, and he’s gotten most of the third-team reps in camp.

“I’m hungry. I’m healthy. I’m way more familiar with the scheme, the coaches, the players, the mindset of what they’re looking for,” Neal said. “The more opportunities, the more I’m going to make of them. At the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s coached of me, play my game and let the chips fall where they may.”

Of course, after last year, being healthy enough to play in the next preseason game, next Sunday at Pittsburgh, was a win for the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Neal.

“It was a good feeling, definitely, just to say I was able to walk off the field after this first preseason [game],” Neal confessed. “I got some good feedback from the coaches. I didn’t really do much, but the little bit that was asked of me, they said I executed well and did what was coached.

“Still have a lot of things I can work on. Some good stepping stones and some good film to study from watching Eddie and all the way down. I think it was good and I’m ready to keep the momentum going and continue to be consistent.”

Harris has been something of a pleasant surprise, having gone undrafted in part because of a poor 40-yard dash time (4.66 seconds), although he was plenty fast enough to take advantage of three Patriots defenders crashing into one another on his touchdown run. At 6-1 and 237 pounds, he most closely resembles Lacy physically.

“It was very important, just being able to have the opportunity to go out there and make a play and put points on the board,” said Harris, who ran for 3,330 yards and 44 touchdowns during his college career at Louisiana-Lafayette. “It’s amazing. I took it as a steppingstone, a step in the right direction. Obviously we’re all out there to do a job, and I felt like I did my job on that play.”

Crockett, meanwhile, is simply happy to be able to do his job after missing the first week of camp with an ankle injury that dated back to the June minicamp. Crockett, who finally passed his physical on Aug. 7, didn’t think at the time that the injury was as serious as it turned out to be.

“It was a long wait. A looooooong wait. I was just happy to get back out there,” said Crockett, who in college was a three-time 1,000-yard rusher for the three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State Bison. “The hard part about it was not being able to be on your ankle or run around for about eight weeks. So I’m still knocking the rust off, still getting back into the swing of things. But at the end of the day, I’m able to be out there, run around and have some fun.

“Your first impression that you leave on the NFL, you want to leave a good one. And this thing is all about consistency. After the game, I was happy with what happened and I was happy to be a part of it, but it’s on to the next game. If you don’t keep moving forward, you’ll get passed by. And I can’t have that.”

Both Crockett and Harris signed with the Packers after the draft in part because they knew the team hadn’t chosen a running back, creating a wide-open opportunity for a roster spot. Now, the two roommates at the St. Norbert College dorms know it’s up to them to force the Packers to keep them around.

“It’s definitely an opportunity for each and every one of us. We all know that,” Crockett said. “We’re all going to push each other. Those guys are two great players, and it’s going to be interesting to see how things unfold. It’s going to be a battle. We all know that. It’s just fun to be a part of it.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.