FOXBOROUGH — Stevan Ridley’s approach to football was shaped by all those years growing up in Mississippi, playing linebacker and fullback on sweltering summer nights. Even now, as a tailback, he takes the field with one goal: Avoid being tackled.
In Ridley’s mind, avoid being tackled doesn’t mean avoid making contact. He likes the contact. Thrives on it, actually. His game was built on it.
Anybody who watched the Patriots’ season-opening win at Tennessee saw an eye-opening game from Ridley, who set career highs with 21 carries for 125 yards. A healthy chunk of those yards came after the first defensive player hit Ridley, illustrating how difficult he is to bring down. Because of the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder, the Patriots’ fortunes at running back are suddenly looking up.
“You can’t play the position being scared. You’re going to take a lot of contact, but as a runner, if you can try to deliver the blow instead of taking the hit, I think that your career might last a little bit longer,” Ridley said. “That’s my philosophy running the ball. I’m trying to get downhill and just deliver the punches, instead of taking all the beatings.”
Physicality is one reason the Patriots grabbed the 23-year-old from Natchez, Miss., with the 73d pick (third round) of the 2011 draft. It followed a solid, but not spectacular, career at LSU, where Ridley decided to leave after his junior season.
He made the most of his one season as LSU’s featured back, rushing for 1,147 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in 2010 while playing against scores of future pros in the athlete-stacked Southeastern Conference. Ridley quickly created quite a reputation.
“He was probably the best running back we played that year,” said Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, whose Alabama Crimson Tide lost to Ridley’s Tigers, 24-21, in 2010. Ridley rushed for 88 yards that day, and his touchdown put LSU ahead to stay. “Even before we started game-planning against LSU, he caught Coach [Nick] Saban’s attention.
“Everything he did then he’s doing even better now. His running style is a little bit different. He’s agile, strong, explosive. He showed me a lot more on Sunday than what he showed in training camp, so I guess he was just waiting for the season to start.”
Ridley never topped 100 yards in any game as a rookie — 97 against the Raiders was his best — a season that ended on a sour note, personally and for the team. Ridley was in uniform for the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, but didn’t play a down. It followed his being inactive for the AFC Championship game. The cause? A pair of fumbles (losing one), one in the regular-season finale, one in the playoff opener.
Banished to the bench, Ridley was stung.
“Being sent home from the AFC Championship was pretty much a lesson learned for me,” Ridley said. “I’m trying not to repeat the same mistakes. That wasn’t the first fumble I had. I hope it was the last one I have, but what are the chances of that?
“For me, I can’t sit on the bad, and can’t sit on the good. Keep my nose down, grind it out, hold the ball high and tight. That’s all I can do as a running back.”
If he holds on to the ball, and keeps churning out 100-yard games, Ridley figures to get the bulk of the carries. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone and the way last season ended for Ridley, which player would emerge as the go-to back — if the Patriots have such a thing — was a valid question during the preseason.
It’s only been one game, but Ridley is on pace for 336 carries. No Patriot has lugged it that many times in the regular season since Corey Dillon (345) in 2004. Since then, only two have carried it 200 times: Dillon (209) in 2005, and Green-Ellis (229) in 2010.
Will 21 carries per game for Ridley be the rule, or the exception?
“Stevan’s certainly earned the opportunity that he got on Sunday,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “He’s a young player that works very hard during the course of the week and has really made strides in a lot of different areas of his game, and certainly I think some of those helped us on Sunday. We hope to see that continue going forward.”
So would Ridley.
“Of course the coaches said something about it, but I didn’t know it was going to be 21. I just go in there, and when they call [No.] 22, I have to go in there and make a play,” Ridley said. “I can’t predict the future on any of that, nobody really knows what’s going on in the mind of a coach. I’m just out there playing my role and doing my job.”
Hightower, who was sporting an Alabama T-shirt before practice on Thursday, said he’s glad he doesn’t have to game-plan for Ridley anymore. But others, starting with the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, do.
“He looked like a good young running back to me,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “He made some goods cuts, saw the field well. They did a nice job of blocking for him. He was impressive.”
Ridley has made a point of trying to put the season opener in perspective. Yes, he was pleased with his performance, and made sure he gave the appropriate praise to the offensive line. Yes, he was able to celebrate with his family members that were in Nashville. But there’s another challenge this week, another opportunity. Looking back doesn’t serve much purpose.
“I enjoyed it the day that it happened, and the day after. But that’s over with, man. I’ve got to get on to Arizona and focus on the upcoming weeks,” Ridley said. “That was a start, and we have to build on that. If you get satisfied or complacent with where you’re at, you’re not going to last too long, and you’re not going to have the season you really want to have. I’m never satisfied.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.