It's not hard to notice Laurence Maroney among the 80 or so Patriots players taking part in mini-camp. His long dreads bounce outside of his helmet as he strides effortlessly through drills while carrying the football, making him stand out among the others.
But even if Maroney sported a clean-shaven head (and at some point in August he likely will be once the veterans administer their "haircuts") he'd still be easy to notice.
That's because the first-round pick has a certain air about him that separates him from the pack. When he takes his turn in running backs coach Ivan Fears' drills, there seems to be a little spark with each of his moves. Whether it be a simple run through the ropes, picking up a blitz or coming out of the backfield as a receiver, Maroney glides as if he was floating an inch or two above the grass.
There's still plenty of time before training camp begins and the pads have yet to be laced up, so any thoughts of the rookie embarking on a 1,500-yard season are clearly premature at this point. But first impressions have been strong, and Maroney appears ready to, at the very least, contribute alongside 10th-year veteran Corey Dillon at tailback.
"Right now I'm just trying to slow things down," Maroney said after Wednesday's morning practice. "It's taking me a while to learn the offense and take everything in, but I'm working at getting it all down. Everything's been real fast. That's the biggest difference from college – the speed. It's taking a little while to get used to how they call things up here, but I'll get there."
Maroney and Dillon have spent a lot of time together during their short time as teammates. Dillon, who set the team record for single-season rushing yards in 2004 before dropping off badly last year, walked off the field with his potential replacement after each morning session.
While it's likely that Dillon will maintain his role as the top back in 2006, it's not out of the realm of possibility to expect Maroney's presence to increase depending on his production. Dillon will turn 32 during the season and with more than 2,400 carries under his belt, his days as the workhorse are nearing an end.
Bill Belichick said he called Dillon on draft day shortly after the Patriots made Maroney their top pick, and all signs thus far have indicated the veteran has done everything he can to help the rookie's transition into the NFL.
"So far we have a great relationship," Maroney said. "He's been teaching me, he's a great mentor and he's telling me what I need to know and how to do things to make me a better player. He's been telling me how to study the playbook, how to read defenses, pre-snap reads and things like that."
The latter is one thing Maroney singled out as a major difference from college, where his natural ability allowed him to oftentimes get by without such vast work in the film room. Now, he says, the studying takes on added importance with the increased level of talent all around him.
Also, Maroney has been pleased to add the passing game to his list of duties. He wasn't asked to do much as a receiver at Minnesota since the Gophers didn't employ the backs in the passing game very often. Belichick said on Tuesday that learning those intricacies can be the toughest adjustment for a young running back to make. But thus far Maroney looks very comfortable in that capacity.
"I wasn't surprised about catching the ball because I already knew that I could catch the ball. It was just at Minnesota we didn't use our running backs in the passing scheme," he said. "So it wasn't something that was new to me, it was just getting to a place where they use the backs in the passing game. It was just getting opportunities to show that I can catch.
And like any good running back, Maroney doesn't care how those opportunities present themselves. "Any way the ball gets in the running back's hands, I like."
Based on a couple days worth of activity, Patriots fans are going to like it when the ball's in Maroney hands.