FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England Patriots longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears insisted all last season that 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris had a bright future despite regularly being inactive.
Fears laid it out: Because the Patriots were so deep at running back with Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, there were never any serious injuries, and Harris didn’t have a significant role on special teams, he simply needed to be patient and his time would come.
That time is now.
Harris has proved to be one of the team’s breakout players in training camp. He has been thrust into a top spot alongside versatile veteran Burkhead because Michel just returned to practice Wednesday after having offseason foot surgery, and veteran Lamar Miller remains on the physically unable to perform list coming off knee surgery.
So one could excuse Fears for chuckling last week when asked if he was worried about overloading Harris in camp.
“With Damien, we wanted to get him some extra work anyways to see him,” Fears said.
Fears has a good feeling for what he has in Harris.
“Damien is a doggone good runner, a real good runner. He’s done a helluva job improving his all-around game,” he said.
That has shown up consistently through nine training camp practices, as Harris has been effective in the traditional running game and in pass catching. A one-handed reception near the goal line highlighted that point.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Harris, who was described as “explosive” by left guard Joe Thuney, said the extended opportunity in practice has provided him a springboard to improve all facets of his game.
“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,” Harris said.
Harris did that at Alabama, totaling 3,070 rushing yards to rank eighth all-time in school history. He is one of eight Alabama backs to eclipse the 3,000-yard career mark, and his 6.4 average yards per carry is an all-time best (minimum 400 rushes).
“Last year, having the opportunity to just learn and absorb as much information as I could [was important],” Harris said. “From the older guys — Sony, Rex, Brandon, James — soaking up as much as I could and then translating it to this year. There have been a lot of things that have helped me in my transition from Year 1 to Year 2, and every single day I come in with the mindset [of] ‘How can I be better?'”
If Harris continues on his present path, he will join Shane Vereen (2011) and White (2014) as Patriots running backs who essentially redshirted their rookie seasons before emerging in Year 2. The opportunity is there, with Michel just returning, Miller still not fully cleared to practice, and depth option Brandon Bolden opting out of the season.
Now Harris, Michel, Burkhead, White and undrafted J.J. Taylor are the running backs at practice and Fears touted the potential of a Harris-Michel combo.
“I think combining him with the other SEC runner that we have in Sony, you have a hell of a pack there,” he said.