FOXBOROUGH — As a running back fighting for a roster spot on a team that doesn’t run the ball much, undrafted Patriots rookie Brandon Bolden treats his opportunities like treasure.
There was no better stage for Bolden than a prime-time, nationally televised exhibition game Monday night against the Eagles, especially with so many of the Patriots’ biggest offensive weapons getting the night off. If there was a moment to be noticed, Monday was it.
Bolden turned some heads, for both good and bad reasons. But at least he was the one occasionally looked at.
“Highs and lows, but it’s all a part of coming into a new environment, the NFL, and things like that,” Bolden said. “Just have to look at it and learn from it, continue to get better each play.”
Bolden, a tailback by trade, took a few reps at fullback in practice last week, then returned two punts against the Eagles, with varying degrees of success. He also carried seven times for 14 yards, behind Stevan Ridley (10 rushes, 25 yards) and Shane Vereen (10 rushes, 20 yards).
Through two exhibition games, Bolden is third on the team in rushing, with 15 carries for 37 yards. Vereen has 21 rushes for 84 yards, while Ridley has carried 18 times for 65 yards. As the Patriots flew to Tampa Tuesday for two days of joint practices with the Buccaneers, followed by Friday’s exhibition game, none of the three running backs, the numbers would indicate, has completely separated from the others.
The Patriots also have Danny Woodhead in the mix, and last week signed Jeff Demps, a speedster from Florida who was on the sideline Monday night. There might not be room for all five on the roster, so Bolden’s ability to make an impact must be maximized if he wants to make the cut.
“Well, you keep your ears up and be ready for anything,” Bolden said. “It’s just practice, practice, practice, and when your name is called, you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Vereen got most of the carries in the first quarter against the Eagles, with Bolden getting all seven of his rushing attempts in the second quarter. It’s also when he dropped back twice to receive punts, something he never did in four seasons at Mississippi. Or as a senior in high school. Or . . .
“Hmmm. Sophomore year of high school, maybe?” Bolden said. “I got a lot of work in with [punter] Zoltan [Mesko] throughout the week, just have to keep getting better and better at it. It’s a work in progress.”
Bolden muffed the first punt, with the Eagles recovering the fumble at the Patriots’ 24 and scoring their first touchdown three plays later. Bolden safely caught the second punt, but returned it just 1 yard. As a gunner when the Patriots punted early in the third quarter, he took down Damaris Johnson with a nice open-field tackle.
“We preach open-field tackling, so you either swing and hit or swing and miss,” Bolden said. “I was just praying for the hit.”
Comparisons have been made to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who like Bolden starred at Ole Miss before latching on with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent. Bolden broke his ankle in his first game as a senior (when he was limited to 472 rushing yards), and was suspended for a game for skipping practice, two strikes that may have dropped him from what many draftniks thought was a solid mid-round selection.
The Patriots were happy to sign him.
“I think Brandon competed well and he definitely showed up with some positive plays in the kicking game and also offensively,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He had never returned [punts] for us. We wanted to give [him] an opportunity to do that in a game.
“I think he showed some versatility, he made some positive plays for us in those two phases of the game, and there are other things that he can learn from and probably will execute better the next time around. Overall, I think a positive performance, but not perfect.”
Right now, Bolden will take positive. He’ll get another chance Friday against the Buccaneers, hoping that anything closer to perfect might earn him a spot on the team.
“Hopefully I can get one,” Bolden said. “Go out there, show them I’m trying to work and trying to earn a spot.”
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.