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Dan Shaughnessy

From 'hands off' to handoffs

FOXBOROUGH -- We'll probably never know if it was the Rookie Wall or a bruised shoulder or cracked ribs that put a stop to Laurence Maroney late in his rookie season with the Patriots. All we know is that he virtually disappeared after taking a hard hit against the Lions in early December. When the Patriots were run out of the RCA Dome in the AFC Championship, Maroney wasn't able to help. He touched the ball only three times in the second half and finished with 13 yards on six carries against the Colts.

But we know he's a quick study. Only 22 years old with one NFL season on his résumé, Maroney is already well-schooled in Patriot ways. He avoids talking about the past (almost McGwire-esque) and understates his importance in the big picture for 2007.

"I'm just a little piece of the puzzle," Maroney said before practice yesterday. "Just a small part. I really don't know what to expect. We've got a lot of players on this team that can do a lot of different things."

We know better. We know that something happened that day against Detroit (Maroney did not play the following two weeks and returned only one kick in the final four regular-season games) and we know that he is a vital piece of the reconfigured New England offense for the upcoming season.

The possibilities are infinite. Tom Brady has a raft of new targets, and Maroney should see a lot more open space when he takes handoffs from No. 12 this year. Maroney ran for 125 yards in his fourth NFL game. He scored three touchdowns in his first four games. He had kickoff returns of 77 and 74 yards. He is an explosive, electric runner and stands to gain as much as anyone in the Patriots' offense.

"I've got to be more decisive and pick a hole and run," he said. "I've been challenging myself to try to get in my mind that I know how the line is going to block so I know where the hole might be. Give me a little head start on the play. At this level, you need to read the defense a little quicker to get in and out of the hole."

Prior to Monday, Maroney hadn't been hit much since the second half of the AFC Championship. He did not play in the first two exhibition games and Bill Belichick had him wearing the "hands off" red jersey in preseason practice.

"I'm glad to have it off," Maroney said. "Everybody gonna crack their little jokes when I walk into the huddle -- 'wow, white jersey!' -- yeah, I'm back in it, I'm back in it, fellas.

"I don't think they really respect the red jersey anyway. They were hitting me anyway. Didn't matter. I was still taking hits. But I didn't get hit hard yet. Hopefully it'll stay that way."

The Patriots play their third exhibition game at Carolina Friday night, and it sounds as though Maroney will finally see game action, but one has to read between the lies. Belichick would rather give you the keys to his house than show his hand regarding any football strategy or injury status. There is no mention of Maroney's shoulder injury or offseason surgery anywhere in his voluminous press guide bio. In fact, we are not sure which shoulder was cut. We'd have checked for suture scars, but the man was wearing his shirt.

On Monday, the coach said Maroney was "closer" to playing in a game. Yesterday, Belichick went a little further, saying, "I know he's anxious to get in there and get some reps this week, so I'm sure he'll get some."

Of course, Belichick might be talking about practice reps, but it sounds like Maroney is going to get some carries against the Panthers.

"It'll be good to get out there and get into the groove of things and catch the speed of the game," said the first-round pick out of Minnesota. "[Game reps] wouldn't hurt. I need 'em. I do. I ain't gonna lie. I need 'em.

"You can't simulate practice speed and try to get game speed out there in practice no matter how fast you go and how many plays you do. I do need the game reps."

How much would he like to play?

"As much as they allow me to play. I ain't played in a while, so as much as they allow me to play, I want to play. I'm ready to see what I've learned and what I can do differently from last year.

"I feel like I still got to stay in bounds and get tough yardage. I'm only a second-year player. Ask me three or four years from now and I might slide out of bounds. But until then I'm gonna have to take my extra yardage. I feel like I've got fresh legs."

"He's been consistent all the way through camp," said Belichick. "He's been limited a little bit in the contact part of it, but he's been able to do everything else and the contact has increased a little bit here in the last couple of weeks.

"I think he's taken another step and he's a step closer. He's closer to being ready to play now than he was a week ago and he was closer a week ago that he was two weeks ago."

Keep an eye on No. 39 in Carolina Friday night. Laurence Maroney is going to be back on the football field. Taking hits.

We think.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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