Mentor In The Backfield

The Patriots have a logjam at running back with all of the new faces on the roster. What roles will they all play? Well, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk have already adopted theirs.

 It wasn't too long ago that Sammy Morris was surrounded by guys like himself, aging versatile running backs in the New England backfield. But the times, they are changing for Tom Brady's ballcarriers. And that's left Morris serving as much as player/coach as simply competing for a job.

   As the lone true veteran on the practice field - Kevin Faulk is on PUP as he recovers from reconstructive knee surgery - the 12th-year veteran Morris has found himself answering plenty of questions from the young backs like third-round pick Stevan Ridley and undrafted rookie Richard Medlin. But his mentoring goes well beyond the just playbook and practice field.

   "I mean to me that's not even about football, that's just kind of just who I am," Morris said after a recent practice of his role as a mentor. "That's just the kind of guy Kevin is. I just think I'm always trying to help with whatever I can. That's even, even if it's getting the young guys clothes. They don't have dress shirts and stuff. So I had to get clothes for Ridley and Medlin. I think it's just kind of guys that we have."

   The kind of guys they have is somewhat different than in some previous years. At this time a year ago Danny Woodhead was still a Jet, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was still rather unproven and the heart of the backfield was the thirty-somethings in Morris, Faulk and now departed Fred Taylor as well as first-round disappointment Laurence Maroney.

   Now, Green-Ellis is coming off a 1,000-yard season in which he scored 13 touchdowns. Woodhead returns after finishing the season as a key, dynamic change-of-pace playmaker on the Patriots attack. Though now entrenched as clear options for offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, neither is quite to the point where they'd be considered well-established veterans.

   Add in Ridley, second-round pick Shane Vereen (who's missed most of camp with a reported hamstring injury) and Medlin and there's quite a unique mix of talent, and experience, on the running back depth chart.

   One similarity between all the backs - and all players at all positions this fall - is that they're trying to get ready for the season on the fly.

   "I think overall we have a good group," said Morris, who had a limited role on offense in 2010. "Obviously we have some young guys that are kind of put in a difficult situation not having all the mini-camps and all that. But I think they're picking it up well and just with the vets that we have I think we're trying to get back into it. That's what Kevin and I and Bennie...against Jacksonville it was kind of crazy a little bit I think I had three practices before playing an actual game. We're getting a lot thrown at us but I think we're responding well."

S Ridley
New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) runs the ball in the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 47-12. 
(David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE)
   The unique season and transitional nature of the backfield means the coaching evaluations at the position could also be challenging.

   "It's kind of surprising, I guess, that I would say this, but the guy we've seen the most of is BenJarvus," coach Bill Belichick said. "Sammy's role is a diverse one. Woody, we saw a lot of last year, but not in training camp. He came in in the middle of the season, so we'd really like to see what his full value to the team would be with an entire training camp - knowing the system and really being able to build off his experience from last year."

   The Patriots have used a committee approach to the backfield in recent years, and that will likely continue in 2011 in some shape and form. Belichick said if you have a guy like Jim Brown as your running back he can do everything. Otherwise, you have to put the various backfield bodies into the roles they're most suited to fill.

   "We'll try to evaluate them relative to each other and relative to the group," Belichick said of working the young guys into the mix. "Any time you have a set of backs, you have some complementary situations: first, second, third, fourth down, as it relates to blitz pickup, pass routes and so forth, special teams and so on.

   "You just evaluate each guy and then ultimately, you have to put them all together and figure what's best of your team. (There're a) lot of jobs there; even though it's one position, there're a lot of jobs."

   One way the young backs will get better is to continue to lean on their veteran teammates to learn from the knowledge that Morris and Faulk can impart from their combined 23 years in the NFL. Morris says he and Faulk have impressed on the young backs that while they're all competing for jobs and roles with the team, the veterans are willing to play that important role of mentor.

   "That's what Kevin and I said, we definitely tried to impress upon them early that you can't ask us too much," Morris said. "If it's 10 o'clock at night or 10 o'clock in the morning, in a meeting...just fire away."

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