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Samuel's status up in the air

Asante Samuel hopes to don his helmet tomorrow against the Jets, but the effects of his long layoff may keep him out. Asante Samuel hopes to don his helmet tomorrow against the Jets, but the effects of his long layoff may keep him out. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH - He ended his holdout nearly two weeks ago, but will Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel be ready to play in tomorrow's season opener against the Jets?

"I guess we'll have to wait and see until Sunday," Samuel said yesterday. "I don't know if I'm going to play, how much I'm going to play. I'm just going out practicing and working hard."

Samuel, who signed the one-year franchise tender and reported Aug. 27, maintained that he stayed in shape during the holdout by working out at home, but coach Bill Belichick rejected the notion that the left cornerback is back up to speed.

"Do I think in one week he is where others are in six weeks? No," Belichick said. "That would be totally unrealistic."

Samuel agreed that he is not in perfect football condition.

"I feel all right," he said. "I'm in late. I have a lot of catching up to do, but I feel pretty good.

"There is a difference between working out - just running and conditioning and doing all those things - than being on the field and going against another team when they're doing the two-minute offense or something like that. It's a little different."

Samuel is not on the active roster, as the Patriots were given an exemption because of his late reporting date. If Samuel is to play tomorrow, he must be activated by 4 p.m. today. No additional cuts would have to be made because Rodney Harrison doesn't count against the roster limit while he serves his four-game suspension.

Even if Samuel is active tomorrow, he might not start at his familiar spot, where Randall Gay has practiced for most of the preseason. Samuel would not share specifics of how practice has gone - even remaining tight-lipped when asked if he had picked off any passes - but assured the crowd of media at his locker that he was working hard.

"I go out there and prepare like I always normally prepare," Samuel said. "I'm trying to do a little catching up, being that I came in a little late."

If Samuel is not active tomorrow, expect to see Gay starting opposite Ellis Hobbs, with rookie Brandon Meriweather and 12th-year veteran Tory James as backups.

Samuel's absence, or limited role, would make the secondary even thinner as it copes with the loss of Harrison. James Sanders is the likely replacement at strong safety, with Meriweather, Gay, and second-year man Willie Andrews able to play safety as well, especially when the team puts three safeties on the field for dime coverage.

With Samuel and Harrison missing big chunks of time, the secondary has been in flux in the preseason, but Hobbs said the defensive backs are prepared nonetheless.

"That's what's so special about this team," Hobbs said. "No matter what guys we lose around here, we always have guys who are ready and willing to jump in. We practice not just where we normally play our position, but we prepare for the next guy going down, to practice at the next position."

If Samuel does play tomorrow, he'll have a chance to reprise one of his finest moments of last season, which came the last time these teams met. Samuel swiped a Chad Pennington pass in the fourth quarter and took it 36 yards to the end zone to seal a 37-16 win in the first round of the playoffs. But the cornerback said that game has no bearing on tomorrow, despite any fond memories.

"It's a new year, a new situation," Samuel said. "You never know what's going to happen."

The same can be said for Samuel's status.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@globe.com.

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