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Hoping he’s gaining on it

Green-Ellis bids to solidify Patriot role

Coach Bill Belichick has cited the ability of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (above) to take instruction. Coach Bill Belichick has cited the ability of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (above) to take instruction. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / August 9, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — To pose the question from the popular game show “To Tell the Truth,’’ Patriots fans, coaches, and players would love to know the answer, since it might affect the team’s sagging ground game, which hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher the past five seasons and has finished among the league’s top 11 only once since 2004.

Will the real BenJarvus Green-Ellis please stand up?

Is he the workhorse who rushed for 3,869 yards in college, carrying the ball 20 times a game? Is he the undrafted free agent who convinced the Patriots to sign him in 2008, then rewarded that decision months later by scoring touchdowns in four consecutive games, highlighted by his first 100-yard effort? Or is he the player who was inactive for four games last season? The one who hasn’t been able to grab a more prominent role, despite being part of a running corps that includes three players at least 33 years old and a former first-round pick who’s never topped 835 yards in an NFL season?

Relying on a pass-happy offense featuring Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker, the Patriots’ ability to run the football effectively, ultimately, might not be all that important. But how Green-Ellis fits in — or if he fits in; there’s no guarantee he makes the team — could be one of the more interesting subplots as the exhibition season plays out, starting Thursday against his hometown New Orleans Saints.

If there’s an opportunity to make a more favorable impression — or a concern that his roster spot is far from secure — Green-Ellis seems unfazed. All he’s focused on is the present, and on what he can control.

“Every year, I just try to go out and work hard, do whatever I can to help the team,’’ Green-Ellis said. “I’ll just do the best I can at my position, whatever they ask me to do.’’

That kind of attitude is textbook Patriots. Green-Ellis — dubbed “Law Firm’’ and “Boston Legal’’ by his mates because of his corporate-sounding name — has stayed out of trouble, hasn’t ruffled any feathers, and has performed adequately when given the chance. The right people have noticed.

“Benny has been productive when he’s had an opportunity to carry the ball,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “I think he’s improved over the last two years significantly. He’s had a good curve.

“Benny works hard. He’s tough, very professional. He really takes his job seriously. When you tell him to improve in something, he’ll work very diligently to improve on it.’’

Green-Ellis didn’t have the smoothest path to professional football. After starring at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, he began his college career at Indiana, where he spent two years (1,732 yards, 12 touchdowns) before transferring to Mississippi, which meant sitting out the 2005 season. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in both seasons with the Rebels, hitting the mark exactly in 2006, then gaining 1,137 yards as a senior. Green-Ellis didn’t hear his name called during the 2008 NFL draft, but signed with the Patriots weeks later.

A surprise, perhaps, to football followers up here, but something that was expected to many on the Bayou.

“With kids you never know for sure, but you always hope. With Ben, yes, he had the physical tools, and if he kept progressing and matured, he’d be able to play on Sundays. People made that comment about him,’’ said Clifford Barthe, who coached Green-Ellis in high school and is now St. Augustine’s athletics director. “He persevered, stayed focused, and continued to push on, which isn’t easy, given the problems we’ve had with the hurricanes and everything. Plus, Ben probably grew up in a situation where the streets could have taken him.’’

Asked about his upbringing, Green-Ellis said, “There’s lots of obstacles in life. Coming from New Orleans, we had Hurricane Katrina, lots of different things. But it’s just like everything else, you have to put it behind you and focus on what’s really important.

“Going through difficult things always makes you a stronger person. Hurricanes, changing schools . . . it toughens you.’’

His toughness never has been questioned. A 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pounder, Green-Ellis stepped in when injuries to nearly everyone in front of him pushed him into a starting role midway through the 2008 season. He scored touchdowns in wins against the Broncos and Rams, scored another and led the team in rushing against the Colts, then scored for a fourth straight game against the Bills, when he carried 26 times for 105 yards.

That’s been the high point; those remain career highs. Green-Ellis, in fact, only carried 26 times the entire 2009 season, and gained just 114 yards.

But his youth, work ethic, attitude, and ability to produce despite going weeks without seeing any action have impressed his teammates.

“He’s a physical guy, a hard runner, a guy that definitely deserves his shot,’’ said Laurence Maroney, who has led the Patriots in rushing yards two of the past three seasons and, like Green-Ellis, is only 25. “We definitely learn together. We both listen to what [Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, and Kevin Faulk] have to tell us, because they’ve been places that we’re trying to get to.’’

So, as he attempts to stick for a third season in New England, does Green-Ellis have a chance to become a bigger part of the Patriots’ offense?

“That’s up to him. I don’t know,’’ Belichick said. “It depends how he does. If he does well, then sure.’’

That’s all any player can hope for. Green-Ellis has had two seasons to show his skills, with inconsistent results. Starting Thursday, he might get another shot.

“My goals are always to put the team first and always work hard,’’ Green-Ellis said. “You never know when you’ll be called on and what you’ll be asked to do. If you work hard and give your best effort, not too many things can go wrong.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com

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