As he readied for the opening kickoff Saturday night, DuJuan Harris admitted to feeling the jitters.
After all, he was moments away from his first real game action since a preseason knee injury wiped out his 2013 season before it officially began.
But when the Green Bay Packers running back and 2007 Central High grad fielded the kick and returned it 40 yards, that uneasiness disappeared.
“I was a little nervous,” Harris said. “I kept thinking about it and I knew with me being back I got to have a spark out of the gate, and that was a good way to start.”
The 25-year-old from Brooksville returned two kickoffs for 63 yards and carried the ball seven times for 18 yards in the Packers’ exhibition opener, a 20-16 loss against the Tennessee Titans.
This marks the fourth year in the NFL for the former Bear once shunned by more prestigious Division I schools before going undrafted out of Troy University.
Proving those doubters wrong, he began carving out a niche at the highest level when the Packers signed him in 2012 and he provided a late-season boost to their maligned rushing attack.
Over four games (two starts), the 5-foot-8, 203-pounder ran 34 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns, including a breakthrough performance on a national stage during a Sunday Night Football contest versus the Detroit Lions.
In two playoff tilts, he totaled 28 carries for 100 yards with a pair of touchdowns, one in each game. He also caught seven passes for 64 yards.
Green Bay used a second-round draft pick on Alabama running back Eddie Lacy that April, though Harris was still expected to play a significant role in the offense.
But he missed time early in last year’s training camp due to a patellar tendon problem in his right knee, and then re-aggravated the issue in his lone preseason contest.
That led to season-ending surgery, sidelining him while Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 scores, becoming the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl selection.
With Lacy now firmly entrenched as the starter, Harris returns combining with veteran James Starks to provide depth in the backfield.
He’s added kickoff return duties, something he did 14 times as rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.
“I’m pretty much doing whatever they need me to do. That’s just how I am,” Harris said. “I feel like I can play multiple positions.
“No one really knows how things are going to go. Last year I was supposed to be the starting guy but it didn’t work out that way. I’m not the type to say what my role is going to be. I just go with the flow.”
As for his knee, Harris said he’s back to full health and would prefer to not focus on it any further.
“Talking to guys, I’m saying, ‘I’m not even bringing it up,’” Harris said. “All I’m worrying about right now is playing in games and having a great season.”
He’ll have another chance to show he’s back to form in Green Bay’s second preseason game this Saturday at St. Louis.
“Once I get in I’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity,” Harris said. “Just like when I first got into the league. I’ve got to treat it like my first game. That’s just how I view it.”
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Harris has also begun getting back in a groove off the field. Recently a photo circulated around the internet of him carrying a little girl’s bike while holding her hand during a team function.
“I didn’t think the picture would go viral like that because it’s something we do every day,” Harris said. “The day before one of the offensive linemen did it.
“She (the little girl) enjoyed it. She even wrote me a little letter to say thank you.”
He’d like to bring that same spirit of community service back to his hometown. He’s hoping to start a camp in Hernando County during the offseason.
“I wanted to get my life together first,” Harris said of why he hadn’t started a camp already. “Hopefully things will be right with me this year, I’ll have everything the way I want it to be, and I’ll have my first camp.”
In the meantime, he hopes to spend the next few months helping the Packers chase Super Bowl dreams.
“I feel like it’s a great team,” Harris said. “We’ve got depth at every position. It’s a very talented group, even the rookies. The sky is the limit.”