The New England Patriots have had the same running backs coach, Ivan Fears, for 18 years. But over the past two seasons, the Patriots have incorporated some new blood into the running back room.
Current co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich assisted Fears last season. Former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown is an assistant running backs coach this season after helping out with wide receivers in 2019, his first year on the coaching side of things.
Fears is one of the best running backs coaches in the NFL. His longevity doesn’t come without that level of esteem, especially with head coach Bill Belichick in charge. But Popovich and Brown have both been able to provide a unique perspective to the running backs room.
“Troy’s been great to work with,” running back Rex Burkhead said Wednesday in a video conference call. “Just his understanding of the game. Of course, he played many years here, so he’s familiar with the system, how things are run here. The biggest thing is technique-wise, route-running, certain things maybe you haven’t seen before or looked at that way just because I’ve played running back. He sees it from a wide receiver lens, and so it translates over to some of our routes and how we run them. He’s been great with that, teaching me, James (White) and all of the other backs certain ways to get to positions out there and really how to use our techniques.”
Popovich, along with Carmen Bricillo, has the unenviable task of replacing legendary Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired shortly after the 2019 season. Popovich, who has been in the organization since 2016, received high praise from Burkhead for his role in the running backs room last season.
“I took a lot from Cole. Even with pass protection, the certain ways they block really helped us out with our techniques, as well,” he said. “But just how he simplified the run game with us and understanding this guy’s going to work up to him and so forth and just how we should follow the blocks on this run. I thought he did a tremendous job of that. It’s something I really took heed of. I know all of the other backs did, as well. But we really tried to implement it in our game instead of just being running backs and relying off of our natural talent and what we see in our eyes but really understanding there’s a flow with the offensive line and really how they’re working the guys. He did a great job with that, and he’ll continue to do a great job for us.”
The Patriots’ run game did struggle last season, but they also were forced to adjust to injuries at fullback and on the offensive line. The Patriots will have to make do without fullback James Develin, who retired, and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who opted out for the 2020 NFL season. They’ll be getting center David Andrews back, however, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn is fully healthy in an offseason for the first time as a Patriot.
Burkhead and White will compete for snaps with newcomer Lamar Miller, rookie J.J. Taylor, 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris and starter Sony Michel, who is starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Running back Brandon Bolden opted out for the 2020 season.