TAMPA — Rookie Jeff Demps made his much-anticipated debut at Patriots practice Wednesday, as New England and Tampa Bay held the first of two joint practices before their exhibition game Friday night.
The former Florida Gator, wearing No. 42, did not take part in the pre-draft process this year, opting to focus on track and the chance to run in the London Olympics.
Despite finishing seventh at the US trials in the 100 meters, Demps, the 2010 NCAA 100-meter champion and a three-time NCAA indoor 60-meter titlist, was part of the team and was able to run for the United States.
He was the lead leg on the 4 x 100 team in the preliminary round, joining Darvis Patton, Trell Kimmons, and Justin Gatlin to run an American-record time of 37.38 seconds. A day later, Kimmons, Gatlin, Tyson Gay, and Ryan Bailey finished second to Jamaica in the final, winning the silver medal in another American-record time.
With the Olympics over and his medal in his Gainesville, Fla., house, Demps turned his attention back to football. He chose to sign with New England over several other teams, including Tampa Bay and the Jets.
Still winded from putting in extra time running routes and catching passes with Brian Hoyer and a member of the coaching staff, Demps told reporters that the practice marked the first time he’d touched a football since Florida’s last game of last season, in the Gator Bowl Jan. 2.
If you’re keeping track, that’s a span of 232 days.
Both Demps and running backs coach Ivan Fears said getting back into football shape will be one of the biggest challenges for the 22-year-old.
“That’s probably going to be the toughest part, just getting back into that football shape and learning the plays,’’ Demps said.
The Gators’ offensive coordinator last fall was former Patriots coordinator Charlie Weis, so Demps does have some familiarity with the New England offense.
“Some of the plays I recognize, and some of them I don’t,’’ he said. “Being with Charlie, it definitely helped me out, coming in and knowing some of the run plays, some of the pass plays.’’
He reportedly lost 15 pounds during training for the Olympics. On Wednesday, Demps said he is at 183 pounds, 5 pounds under his usual playing weight; his biography on the Florida website for his senior year lists the 5-foot-7-inch Demps’s weight as 191.
Fears believes getting into football shape won’t be as difficult for Demps as it would be for a lineman.
“A skill guy can play a lot faster than big guys can,’’ Fears said. “For him, it’s mostly just getting his feet up under him, getting a little wind back in his lungs, getting used to catching the ball.
“I’m sure it won’t take that long for a guy like him. He’s such a great athlete, just based on what I’ve seen on film.’’
With training camps now closed to the public, media are also restricted on how long they can watch practice; on Wednesday, it was 30 minutes. In that time, reporters saw Demps work with the kickoff returners, receivers, backs, and tight ends.
It wasn’t flawless; a bouncing kickoff went through his hands as he bent to retrieve it, and the first pass thrown his way in warm-ups also went through his hands.
Fears did find positives, however.
“He did a fine job, I threw him in the one-on-ones and blitz pickup and all that stuff; he’s courageous,’’ said Fears, adding that Demps is not a weak guy despite his slight size.
Demps had no issues with the one-on-ones, but noted that “the guys are a lot bigger.’’ Having run indoor track and outdoor track his first three years at Florida (he did not run spring track as a senior), Demps said he is used to transitioning between the sports, and called himself “a football player first.’’
While Patriots fans are excited about Demps’s arrival, and Fears’s first impression of him as a young man is positive, he’ll have to earn everything with his new coach — silver medal or not.
“I’m not going to go overboard. What he’s done has been truly amazing and a great story, but out here, I ain’t giving him nothing!’’ said Fears (mostly serious). “He’s going to earn everything he gets from us.
“No matter how I feel about him, unless he does it on the field, he’s not getting everything else.’’
Having already had his Olympic experience, Demps has at least a couple of lessons he brings with him to his new job:
“To be a technician at everything you do,’’ he said. “You’re a professional now, so you have to make sure everything’s perfect. Can’t slack off.’’