After spending his first two years not playing in the season opener, Damien Harris is poised to play a big part in the Patriots offense against the Dolphins on Sunday. With Sony Michel now in Los Angeles and Rex Burkhead in Houston, Harris figures to carry a heavy load as he embarks on his third year and could be poised for a breakout season if he can build on the success he had in 10 appearances in 2020.
"Coach Belichick says all the time that running the football and establishing the line of scrimmage is a sign of a tough football team," said Harris on Thursday evening. "Obviously that's something we want to do. We want to set that identity, set that precedent that no matter who lines up across from us, no matter who you play, where you play, we're gonna show up and try to be the tougher team, the more physical team and try to do that for 60 minutes."
"He's been here since the day after the season was over," said Belichick at the start of training camp about Harris. "He has worked as hard as anyone has in the offseason. I'm sure that'll help his preparation. Heading into this camp, we'll see how he does. He's worked extremely hard. He's a very dedicated player. I've been impressed by the commitment he has shown."
Harris made an impressive debut in 2020, rushing for 100 yards on 17 carries, a threshold he'd top two more times, including a 22-carry, 121-yard performance against the Ravens in one of the biggest wins of the season.
Now, Harris is looking to build off of that success in 2021, even carrying around a football around the facilities with him as he was while waiting for his media availability on Thursday to begin, calling it part of his daily routine as part of a focus on ball security.
"It's something I picked up this offseason and I haven't been able to put it down," said Harris, who admitted he hadn't seen The Program, which features a running back who has to bring a football around with him off the field while his teammates try to strip him of it. "It shows my love of the game, and it's part of my daily routine now."
With a rookie quarterback under center, a productive ground game, led by a renewed tight end group and a solid veteran offensive line, should be of major importance, especially early in the season. And for Harris, having friend and former teammate Mac Jones as the starter should provide a familiar boost.
"It's been great, I think overall we're trying to develop a great team chemistry across the board...offense, defense and special teams, in the kicking game," said Harris. "Everybody wants to get on the same page because we know it's going to be a long season full of challenges, starting with Week One and the Miami Dolphins."
Judon brings the noise off the field too
Matt Judon's impact was easy to see on the field this summer. The newly-signed linebacker was a constant terror in the limited preseason snaps that he saw and has fans excited about what he will bring to Sunday's this fall.
But it's hasn't just been on the field that Judon has made an impact.
"He's a character," said Dont'a Hightower. "He definitely sets the whole mood for the defense as far as the music in the locker room, and he works hard and has fun doing it... Having a guy like that in a work heavy environment like this definitely helps."
"I waited until we got to training camp to bring the speakers in, they were kind of with it," said Judon when asked about his DJ skills. "At first, there was no music in there, everybody had headphones on. Now we're kind of on the same vibe. It's set to move for practice.
"You always want to have an upbeat locker room, you want to always have somewhere you want to come to. I try to make that as much as possible."
Practice and Injury Report
The Patriots had full attendance at their rainy Thursday practice as preparations continued for the Dolphins. Jalen Mills (ankle) reportedly did not finish Wednesday's session and looked to be a bit limited during the brief window of stretching. He would later be listed as Did Not Practice on the Injury Report as his status tops the list of injury concerns heading into the game. If he's unable to go, it's possible JoeJuan Williams cyould get his first start at cornerback.
Receiver Nelson Agholor was also listed as not having participated in practice as he's been in and out of the lineup for much of the summer. The Patriots' receiver depth is nearly as thin as it is at cornerback and missing Agholor for the opener would be disappointing, putting added pressure on Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne.
Yodny Cajuste was again listed as limited with a hamstring issue while Ronnie Perkins was added to the list as limited with a shoulder injury.
Quotes of Note
Dont'a Hightower on how Mac Jones has earned his teammates respect:
"He's just being Mac. He's not asking for a lot... It happens to merry up with a lot of the ways we do it here... He's able to adapt to things a lot easier than most rookies. The way he works. You don't really hear Mac say much. He'll crack a joke... Him having the production he's had, it's easy to respect him. Appreciate guys like that."
Brandon Bolden on running backs coach Ivan Fears:
"He's like a father — like a grandfather figure to all of us. I love him to death. But some of the stuff he says has you scratching your head like, 'Wow, I've never heard that combination of words put in a sentence before.'"