FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Danny Woodhead was too small for big-time college football. He missed his first pro season with a knee injury. Then he didn’t fit the offensive scheme of the New York Jets.
After the first week of this NFL season, he was without a job.
But not for long.
The New England Patriots signed the 5-foot-8 running back four days after he was cut by the Jets and he has been a revelation. Finally, Woodhead belongs.
“He’s done a great job,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s learning the offense very quickly. He does a number of different things for us: running game, passing game, special teams.”
The undrafted free agent from Division II Chadron State in Nebraska is preparing for all that when his former team visits his current team in a Monday night matchup of the co-leaders of the AFC East, both with an NFL-best 9-2 record. He said he harbors no bad feelings toward the team that released him.
“Stuff like this happens. It’s a business,” Woodhead said. “I’m long gone from that. That’s not something that I worry about. … I’m here and I’m happy and that’s all that matters.”
Woodhead is the Patriots second leading rusher with 344 yards on 64 carries, three for touchdowns. He’s caught 24 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown. He’s been an effective blocker and special teams player. Last year with New York, he ran just 15 times for 64 yards and caught eight passes for 87 yards.
“I don’t know if he couldn’t do it here, they just run their offense a little different than we do,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose team signed him in 2008. “He’s perfect for what they do. Kevin Faulk had that role for years and was so successful. Danny Woodhead is doing a great job doing that.”
With his knowledge of the Jets offense and defense, Woodhead should help the Patriots prepare for the game, Belichick said.
The Patriots needed another running back when they traded Laurence Maroney to the Denver Broncos on Sept. 14, two days after the season opener. Later that week — just before their first game against the Jets — the Patriots signed Woodhead. Then, when Faulk, also 5-foot-8, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 28-14 loss to New York, Woodhead’s opportunity came.
On his second carry of the season, he scored his first pro touchdown on a 22-yard run in a 38-30 win over the Buffalo Bills. The following week, he caught an 11-yard scoring pass in a 41-14 win at the Miami Dolphins. Two weeks ago, in a 31-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts, he weaved around defenders on a 36-yard touchdown run then made a jarring tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
“You’ve got to take the advice of your coaches and go out there and do the best you can (at) whatever it may be that you need to do,” he said. “If it’s blocking, it’s blocking. If it’s running, it’s running. It’s really just trying to get better at everything that I can.”
Tiny but tough, he’s been doing that all the way back to his days at North Platte High School, about a three-hour ride from Chadron.
“The first time we saw Danny perform, you knew he was special,” said John Reiners, his position coach at Chadron State. “As good as he was, he was never satisfied. He always wanted to be better.”
Woodhead won the Harlon Hill award in 2006 and 2007 as the nation’s top Division II player. His 7,962 yards rushing was an NCAA record, since surpassed, for all divisions. He also scored in 38 straight games and holds the school’s single-game rushing record of 324 yards.
Reiners, now the offensive coordinator at Black Hills State in South Dakota, recalls the time Woodhead broke into the open and, instead of shifting around two much bigger safeties, he plowed through them and kept going. Then there was the play on which he headed for the left pylon with the ball in his left hand and, to keep it in bounds, shifted it into his right hand while diving toward the end zone.
And this: “Literally, I think I saw him make a move while he was still in the air,” Reiners said. “You almost feel like sometimes he levitates. He’s not afraid of challenges. Like he’ll tell you, he’s been challenged his whole life, whether it be because of his size or something else, and he doesn’t shy away from it. The kid plays like he’s 6-foot, 220 pounds.”
Woodhead was his state player of the year as a high school senior and wanted to go to Nebraska. But he drew no serious interest from major schools, so he went to Chadron State where he fit right in after learning to harness his energy.
“On his first carry, he tripped and fell because he was so excited,” Reiners said. “About two plays later, he went on a 25-yard touchdown run.”
Woodhead hasn’t made such a dramatic impact in the NFL, but he’s done so well that, according to the Boston Herald, he’s signed a contract extension through 2012. Maybe by then, his size won’t be such a big story.
“I’ve just got to go out and do my job,” Woodhead said. “I’m really not a person that is thinking about my size. I think that’s more so everyone else. It’s not something I’m worried about.”
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York contributed to this report.