As unlikely as it is that Jamie Harper will be the Tennessee Titans' featured running back for the second straight game Saturday, given the circumstances that have made that the case, that’s only half the story.
Harper, the fourth-round draft pick, almost never has been a team’s primary ball carrier. Not in high school. Not in college.
“This is a little different,” he said. “It’s exciting. Every running back loves to get carries and touches to have the ball in their hands because they pretty much believe they’re playmakers.
“It’s definitely a great feeling.”
Headed into Saturday’s game against Chicago (7 p.m., LP Field), Harper leads the Titans with 110 rushing yards on 19 carries and boasts the team’s only two rushing touchdowns. He also has one reception for 24 yards.
Through the first two weeks of the preseason, he was one of only six running backs in the league with more than 100 yards. The bulk of those — 83, to be exact — came in last weekend’s loss at St. Louis when he played with the starters and had 11 of Tennessee’s 18 first-half rushes.
“It’s been crazy ever since the lockout [ended],” Harper said. “You’re a rookie, so you already don’t know what the league holds for you. Just to get here and everything starts rolling so fast, it’s definitely a shock.”
Harper actually was his team’s leading rusher last season at Clemson — but just barely. He rushed for 726 yards on 117 carries as he played all 12 games. Teammate Andre Ellington had just 40 fewer yards on 118 carries but missed three games.
Before that, Harper split time with C.J. Spiller, the Buffalo Bills’ 2010 first-round draft choice. Even at Trinity Christian High School in Jacksonville, Fla., he shared duties with Montel Harris, a senior this year at Boston College who already is a first-team All-ACC player and — oddly — that school’s all-time leader in carries.
Now that Harper is in the spotlight, even if it’s only temporary, he has not missed his opportunity to shine. Included among his carries at St. Louis was a 46-yard run, which currently ranks as the Titans’ longest play of the preseason.
“[When] — mentally — you slow the game down, you do a lot better,” he said. “I was able to get in there and just get those reps. It opened my eyes a lot and taught me a lot.”
All of the Titans' running backs have operated one spot up on the depth chart since the start of training camp because starter Chris Johnson has held out as part of his pursuit of a new contract.
The top backup, Javon Ringer, sustained a hip injury in the preseason opener against Minnesota but was expected to play against the Rams, almost up to the day of the game. Then it was strongly assumed that he would be ready for this weekend’s game against the Bears.
Ringer has not practiced since the Vikings game.
“[Ringer] has had a good camp up until the injury,” coach Mike Munchak said. “He has been running hard and we feel very confident with him in there. He understands protections very well. I know it’s frustrating for him with the two games he missed.
“You like to have everyone in there that you feel is going to have to contribute in Jacksonville for the opener, but again, we still have quite a bit of time for guys that do have some nicks to recover.”
Until then, Harper plans to make the most of his chance to get most of the carries.
“There’s kind of positives and negatives to everything,” he said. “A positive is that I get more reps and more looks and people can see what I bring to the organization — how I’ll be able to contribute and help. But just to have [Johnson] here would be a tremendous thing.”
Harper also gets to practice with the starters, which means more opportunities to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates.
“Here’s a guy that the lights go on and he shows up,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “He’s done an excellent job. He’s holding on to the football. He knows his [pass] protections. He’s done an excellent job.
“Hopefully we’ll have three backs and he’ll be one of the three we’ll be counting on and we’ll have to divide our carries accordingly.”
That would be a departure from what has taken place so far … but just another football season for Harper.