FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Damien Harris hardly saw the field for the Patriots last season. This year, that could change for the second-year running back.
A third-round pick out of Alabama in 2019, Harris was stuck on New England's depth chart behind Sony Michel, a 2018 first-round pick and former Southeastern Conference foe out of Georgia, as well as veteran contributors James White and Rex Burkhead.
An injury to Michel has opened the door for Harris, who finished 2019 with four carries for 12 yards. Michel, who led the team in rushing last season with 912 yards and seven touchdowns, was placed on the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 2 after reportedly having foot surgery in May. It’s left an opening for someone to fill the role as the Patriots’ primary back in the interim.
Harris said he isn't focusing as much on cracking the lineup as he is on proving to the coaching staff that he's ready to contribute.
“My biggest concern is to get myself mentally and physically prepared to do whatever it takes for me to help this team be successful,” he said. “Day in and day out in practice, I show up with the mentality to improve in every area that I can and do whatever the coaches need for me to do in order for this team to be successful.”
If Michel isn’t ready to go by the start of the season, White (67 carries, 263 yards, 1 rushing TD in 2019) and Burkhead (65 carries, 302 yards, 3 TDs last season) are both capable of increasing their workload in the run game.
But White is primarily used as a pass catcher out of the backfield and Burkhead is the Patriots’ go-to back in short yardage. At Alabama, Harris was used all over the field and left as the school's career leader in yards per carry (6.4).
Coach Bill Belichick was tight-lipped last season as to why Harris saw so little playing time, even as the rushing attack struggled with consistency. He did add some depth at the position recently, signing eight-year veteran Lamar Miller. But Miller spent last season working his way back from a knee injury and has also started training camp on the PUP list.
While Michel saw a lot of action as a rookie in 2018, appearing in 13 games with eight starts, it’s not uncommon for rookies to be brought along slowly in the Patriots’ intricate offense.
White, for example, appeared in just three games his first season in 2014, totaling nine carries.
The Patriots have had only two practices in full pads, and Harris has gotten a lot of reps. He said he appreciates the increased workload.
“It’s been good. It’s given me an opportunity to improve,” he said. “That’s what I think is most important, coming in and showing that I can be dependable, I can be competitive, I can play the game at a high level. Just want to come in here and improve every single day no matter what is asked of me, no matter what coaches need me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Running backs coach Ivan Fears said Harris’ talent is evident.
“I think you need just to know that Damien is a doggone good runner. He’s a real good runner. He’s done a hell of a job improving his all-around game,” Fears said. “When he came out of ’Bama he was an excellent runner. He is an excellent runner. I think that’s what he’s going to show you when he gets a chance to play.
“I think you’re gonna like what you see and I think combining him with the other SEC runner that we have in Sony, you have a hell of a pack there.”
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