FOXBORO -- It’s a small sample size, but it appears the Patriots may have found their next great undrafted gem in Brandon Bolden.
The 22-year-old running back out of Ole Miss rushed for 137 yards on 16 carries against the Bills on Sunday, averaging 8.6 yards per carry and running hard and physically against the Buffalo defense. And while he amazed some Patriots’ fans, the performance of a relatively anonymous running back who wasn’t even part of New England’s draft class didn’t surprise two of his former coaches.
“I didn’t see the game -- I got to see the highlights,” said Derrick Nix, the running backs coach at Ole Miss who worked with Bolden as a collegian. “It was fun to see all the kids talking about him and the success he had. I was just glad to see a former player of mine going out and having success.”
“To me, I expected that out of him. I always thought he was a real good player, especially when I coached him,” said Richard Oliver, who coached Bolden as a high school senior. “Brandon is a special athlete.”
For the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Bolden, the journey to the NFL began as a high schooler in Louisiana, where he was considered one of the best prospects in the state and one of the 35 best high school running backs in the nation. At Scotlandville Magnet, he rushed for 866 yards and 12 TDs as a senior, and also caught 12 passes for 256 yards while flashing some positional versatility.
“We had a situation when he was a senior where we lost our quarterback for the first three games, and we put him at quarterback. Turns out he could do everything our quarterback could do,” said Oliver. “He had a lot of talent, but his real upside is that he was always a bigger kid. He just stepped in perfectly -- he could run the ball, he could throw the ball, and he was just a great athlete. Six-feet tall with blazing speed in high school -- that’s the type of kid you want around.
“There were no incidents with him in high school. He was always at practice -- just a great kid. He did all the things you want your kids to do. He was a model student -- in high school, we never had a problem with Brandon. In addition, he was always a big, strong kid -- he was six-feet tall and 225 pounds and fast as lightning and quick as a cat as a high schooler. As a high schooler, he looked like a grown man.”
Surprisingly, he didn’t get a lot of offers as a high schooler -- until his tape landed on Nix's desk late in the recruiting process.
“I think the first thing that comes to mind with Brandon is being a new coach on the job for two to three weeks and seeing his coaching tape for the first time and being amazed that he was still available,” Nix recalled. “He was a 200-plus pound back who was 5-foot-11 with good speed who had just a couple of offers, and I felt like we were lucky to get a kid like that so late in the process. He had the size-speed ration I was looking for, and he came out as a freshman, and in his first year, he did well.”
In his first three seasons as a collegian, Bolden was one of the Rebs’ best offensive options, building an impressive resume while playing in 26 games in his first two seasons at Ole Miss. That culminated in his junior year, when he started 11 of the team's 12 games and tied the school single-season records for TDs scored (17) and rushing TDs (14). In addition, he led the team in rushing (976 yards), receptions (32) and all-purpose yards (1,320 yards).
Things changed for Bolden at the start of his senior year. Set to be the lead back for the Rebels, he fractured his ankle in the season opener and wasn’t the same for the rest of the year. He ended the season with less than half the rushing yards he had as a junior -- in the end, he played in 10 games with four starts, and finished second on the team with 96 carries for 462 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
According to Nix, Bolden had a “third-round” draft grade after his junior year, but the injury his senior season was difficult for him, both mentally and physically.
“I always though that if he had to do it all over again, he might leave early,” Nix said of Bolden. “I know he thought about coming out after his junior year, and he had a third-round grade on him. But he got hurt his senior year in the first game of the season, and I think that situation was tough for him to deal with. He had success for three seasons, and then, all of a sudden, he’s not playing. Because of the injury, he wasn’t 100 percent as a senior, and all of that contributed to him sliding.
“I don’t know if he handled that as well as he could have -- after having so much success, I think it was a tough time for him. But at the same time, I think he looked at the situation, assessed what would be best, and just went as hard as he could. In the end, he had the mindset that he was going to make it work -- he could make it happen. And he did.”
That dip allowed the Patriots to sign him as a rookie free agent on May 10. At the time, he entered a crowded backfield that included veteran Joseph Addai (since released), as well as Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, two backs who were expected to get the bulk of the carries with the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the Bengals as a free agent. Then, there was Danny Woodhead, a versatile third-down option who suddenly became the senior member of the New England backfield. The thought of another back sticking around was difficult to comprehend, especially with veteran free agents Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk as possibilities.
But Bolden shrugged off the positional crowd.
“I really just wanted to play football,” Bolden said. “Drafted or undrafted, it really didn’t matter.”
Bolden stuck, showing up positively on several occasions in the preseason. Over the course of four games, he had 36 carries for 128 rushing yards, including a 59-yard effort against the Giants. In truth, his preseason performance may have left New England in a bit of a bind: One NFL personnel man said that in a perfect world for the Patriots, he would have performed just well enough for New England to keep him on the practice squad while he got used to life in the NFL.
Instead, he ended up making the 53-man roster.
“He was a productive player in college. ... I think Brandon ran well for us in preseason when he had an opportunity,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He did well in the kicking game and he did well offensively, both running the ball and catching it. That’s kind of how he made the team.”
While last Sunday’s performance put him front-and-center when discussing New England’s running game -- and got him a nomination for FedEx Ground Player of the Week -- he confessed Thursday that he didn’t know how many reps he’d get going into the Bills game. And he has zero clue as to how many he’ll get Sunday afternoon against the Broncos.
“You go into every week of practice, going in and trying to learn as much of the game plan as you can,” Bolden said. “Because in case your number does get called, you have the opportunity to go execute everything.
“[You don’t] worry about last week. Last week happened; now we’re getting ready for Denver. We have them coming here,” he added. “Just forget about it. It was a game. You see that: ‘Yeah, yay, yippee.’ Everybody was happy. But it happened, it’s in the past, and now, we’re moving on.”
If he can keep his focus and build on his performance against the Bills, Bolden will join the ranks of some of the best undrafted finds in recent franchise history, a group that includes another undrafted gem of a running back out of Ole Miss in Green-Ellis.
His former coaches don’t think distractions or mental toughness will be an issue for Bolden.
“With Brandon, the talent is there, the effort is there and the mindset is there,” Oliver said. “I think the people of New England have themselves a real special football player in Brandon Bolden.”
“I don’t know New England’s whole roster and their personnel situations and everything. But from my track record, it’s a blue-collar team where hard work is rewarded, and that’s what it was like at Ole Miss as well,” Nix said. “They take a lot of under-the-radar guys -- free agents and late-round picks -- and make tremendous strides with them. Brandon is another one of those guys. He has early-round ability and slipped through the cracks. All he needs is an opportunity.
“I think New England has themselves a humble kid who just wants an opportunity -- he will go out there and bust his tail, bust his tail to be the best player he can be. He’s an every down back who can contribute on special teams as well. If he stays healthy, he’ll be a good back in the NFL for a long, long time.”