FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Stevan Ridley smiled at his fortune.
“I’m excited about where I am in my career right now,” he said.
And why not?
Ridley, the second-year pro from LSU has already surpassed the 441 yards he gained last season. He leads the New England Patriots in rushing with 490 yards in 102 carries, scoring four touchdowns in the team’s first five games. He’s also caught five passes for 51 yards.
“Things are going well and there’s no doubt about it that God’s blessed me to be up here in the NFL and to have this opportunity,” said Ridley, who, at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, is a punishing running back. “To have had the little bit of success I’ve had up to this point is really a tremendous blessing. I’m thankful, but I know I have to continue to work and things will fall into place as they go.”
Said New England head coach Bill Belichick, “Stevan has done a good job for us too. The big thing for a back is just to be able to get him started and have a chance to use his running skills.
“When there’s a hole, then they have to get through the hole and hopefully make yards on whoever the next level tackler is, the safeties or the corners or whoever it happens to be.”
Ridley’s is an unlikely story all the way around for a guy who came out of a small, private school in Mississippi. He left Trinity Episcopal High School in Natchez as highly regarded fullback/linebacker more than anything else. Ridley redshirted at LSU in 2007. In 2008 and 2009, he gained a combined 272 yards on 57 carries.
It would have been hard to imagine at that point that when the Patriots visit the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Ridley would be a featured back in the NFL.
But he stunned the Southeastern Conference in 2010 when he led the Tigers with 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns. And then he left, putting his name in the NFL Draft.
“I had a group of people around me, my mom and my dad, my uncle, my high school coach, a close family friend who is the family lawyer, and weighed all the options,” Ridley said, adding that he didn’t make an impetuous decision, but one that “we put a lot of work into to see if it was my best move to come back or leave.”
One thing they considered was the playing life span of a punishing running back.
“It’s a very limited time you get to play this position,” Ridley said. “Especially in the NFL and on that level. For me, I had a great year and I’m still faithful to LSU but it was just my time. It was my time to go.”
The prevailing thought around Baton Rouge was he needed another year.
“Coach (Les) Miles, he wasn’t too happy about it and he tried to talk me into coming back. He and coach Frank (Wilson) were really trying to get me to stay, but I had to follow my gut,” Ridley said. “I had to follow my family and what I needed at that point. It was to pursue my dream and my dream was to play in the NFL. I love LSU and I’ll be back in Baton Rouge when it’s all said and done, but I had to get out there and chase this opportunity.”
And the money figured in, too.
“It worked out exactly how I thought it would,” he said. “I got my grade back and I had a third-round grade and they normally tell you the lowest you’ll go. Third-round money was way more money than I had seen in my life and more than I would see in any job I was going to get coming out of college.”
He admitted his first major purchase “was the sin they tell you not to buy, but I’ve been a car fanatic since I was young, so I went ahead and got me a Camaro. That’s what I’ve wanted since I was a kid … It’s something to see. I love it. It’s black and red, my high school football colors. That’s my baby.”
Ridley, who still obviously follows the Tigers closely, added more logic to his cause. As he said, it wasn’t like he was leaving the LSU backfield bare.
“You look at the backs they have there, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Michael Ford, Kenny Hilliard, Jeremy Hill (who signed with LSU that year), they have plenty of talent there,” he said. “There were five guys and had I stayed I would have been the sixth,” he said. “There were just a lot of guys in that room. That’s a lot of talent. So I just decided I couldn’t be scared about making a move, about making that next step. Especially after I had the year that I had there. I left and came out and things have worked out for me up to this point.”
In 2011, there was a lot of competition in the New England backfield. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a New Orleanian who played at Ole Miss, led the team with 667 yards and 11 TDs on 181 carries. Green-Ellis was a free agent who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ridley had big moments as he picked up 441 yards and a TD on 87 carries. What’s more, he never lost a fumble, something that finally happened to him Sunday late in the game against Denver. Danny Woodhead rushed 77 times last year for 351 yards and a TD. And another former Tiger, Kevin Faulk, had 17 carries before he got injured, ultimately leading to his retirement earlier this week.
“Last year, I get here and I’m looking around and Faulk was here and BenJarvus was here and Danny Woodhead, these were all names I’d heard before and I’m taking handoffs from Tom (Brady) and the offense is moving fast and they’re throwing a lot of information at you,” Ridley said.
“But the thing for me is this system is run a lot like LSU’s. They strive for perfection, there’s an attention to detail, they take pride in doing the small things right. It was just new, so I was taking it one day at a time and trying to learn.”
Woodhead is still in the mix, having run for 119 yards this season and a TD, but the big surprise is yet another Ole Miss standout, Baton Rouge native and ex-Scotlandville player Brandon Bolden, who has run for 206 yards and two scores.
Two weeks ago, Ridley and Bolden gave the Patriots their first two 100-plus-yard rushers in the same game since 1980.
“They did a nice job of one, finding the hole that was there and was made for them and then two, trying to make some yards after contact and also yards on the defenders, whether they made them miss or got to the edge and kind of used their speed and quickness to get around them as well,” New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I think there were plenty of positives the other day and hopefully we can build off those.
Ridley expects nothing less.
“We just went out there and took the yards we were given,” he said. “Our offensive line opened up some holes and we just hit ’em hard and that’s the only way we know how to do it. Because in the SEC, if you don’t get there quick, the holes are gone. So like I said, we’re blessed.”
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