FOXBORO -- As far as the attending media members were concerned, the Patriots were still somewhat shrouded in mystery during Thursday's OTA session.
No names on the jerseys. No numbers. With a high-powered set of binoculars one could find digits on the backs of helmets or on the front of players' navy blue shorts.
One player whose number wasn't necessary? Stevan Ridley. Sporting neon cleats and a tinted visor, he stood out among the team's running back.
Last year he stood out for different reasons at different points. Namely, his ball-security issues. After a disastrous outing against the Broncos in November last season, Ridley called his fumbling "sickening."
He finished the year behind LeGarrette Blount on the depth chart and ended up with 773 yards on 178 attempts (a 4.3-yard per attempt average). In the AFC Championship Game against the Broncos, he had five carries for 17 yards after the Patriots tried to ride Blount early.
"In this system . . . you can go out there and be a starter one game and the next game, you’re two or three guys behind," Ridley said Thursday. "So really none of that matters. It’s week in and week out and that’s what coach stresses to us every week that we have to go out there and be competitive as we can be. He’s going to play the matchups game, and we just have to be unselfish enough to go out there and capitalize on the plays that we get."
Now Blount is gone and though the team has stockpiled rookie running backs in the draft (James White, who fumbled twice on 669 career touches at Wisconsin) and in free agency (Roy Finch, Stephen Houston), Ridley could be the lead back once again. He knows the process to earning that job begins in OTAs.
"We’re still out there trying to win a job," Ridley said. "Nothing is guaranteed. Coach reminds us of that every day. Nobody is a starter. Nobody has anything locked in. We have to go out there and work for every play that we have to get. So I’m just going out there and trying to be the best player I can be, individually, to help this team out and try to get this team to win a championship."
Both Ridley and fellow fourth-year back Shane Vereen are set to be free agents come next offseason. For Ridley, it's a big year, but he said his contract situation isn't weighing on his mind.
"Honestly, man, I try not to think too much about it," he said. "I just really put my faith in God and that’s just as real as I can be. I got to go out there and play football and hit it hard and run the ball wide open. I’ve just got to be the same player that I’ve been up to this point and time. Just try to go out there and be mistake-free."
When he hasn't been mistake-free is when Ridley has found himself on the sidelines.
Thursday's OTA was filled with drills -- though not run at full speed and not with full contact -- that focus on ball security. While they may be monotonous at times, Ridley knows he has to go through them if he wants to regain his status as a lead back with the potential for 1,000 yards rushing in New England's offense.
"The one word is the 'grind.' These are the days that, I don’t care what player you are, nobody really likes these days," Ridley said of OTAs. "It’s hard work. It’s no football being played for weeks right now. That’s the beauty of the season. You work hard during the week, but you know you get to pay off at the end of the week and play a game and get to knock around somebody on the opposite team.
"Right now, it’s just a bunch of days ahead of us. Every single day you have to come in here and as a player, never be satisfied. You have to stress yourself to go in there and make sure you were better the day you were before. You have to eat right. You have to put the right things in your body. You have to train hard. The coaches are never satisfied right now. Your team still trying to mold and become a high caliber team because this is the National Football League. Everybody has these same amount of days, but what are you going to do with these days to put you ahead of the rest of your competition? That’s one thing coach Belichick stresses to us, that it’s not going to be handed to us. We’ll have to come in here and work for everything we get. And that’s what we’ll do – work hard around here, that’s the Patriot way."