- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA -- New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears didn't have to think too long about the question. He's been in football the past 37 years, but when it comes to the fastest player he's ever coached, the answer came to him with the speed of a U.S. Olympic silver-medal sprinter.
There was no hesitation after spending one day on the practice field with rookie Jeff Demps on Wednesday.
"Him; there's no doubt about it," Fears said, laughing, because he's truly coached him only one day. "I haven't had anybody that had world-class speed. I've had some fast guys, but legitimate world-class? No, haven't had too many of those type of guys."
And therein lies some of the excitement that has percolated in New England since Demps signed a three-year contract last Friday.
How it all materializes for the Patriots -- maybe Demps is a dynamic kickoff returner, maybe he's a Darren Sproles-type firecracker on offense, maybe he's a nonfactor -- has become one of the more compelling storylines around a team on which there are few. Can anyone think of another undrafted player in Bill Belichick's 13-year Patriots tenure that has generated more buzz?
There isn't one. Not even close, and that's no disrespect to the likes of quarterback Matt Gutierrez and linebacker Freddie Roach, who at one point had some wondering if they might be undrafted gems destined for bigger things.
It's just that Demps' Olympics-to-NFL path is so different. That factored into his going undrafted, because he gave teams no indication that football would be in his future.
Demps wasn't misleading. He wasn't sure himself.
"It was an uncertainty. I was just focusing on running and the Olympics," Demps said Wednesday after his first full-pads practice with the Patriots, which was a joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Once all that was over, I decided to come back to the game."
Because of that, there is a feeling among some that perhaps the Patriots have scored big with Demps, even though he was projected by analysts as a mid- to late-round pick had he focused on football instead of track.
On Wednesday, Demps was one of the most popular players after the Patriots' practice, drawing a large crowd of reporters in part because he chose to sign with New England over his home-state Buccaneers. He was practically out of breath, the 2-hour, 45-minute workout taking a lot out of him.
"That's probably going to be the toughest part, just getting back into that football shape," he said, adding that he's now at 183 pounds, about five pounds lighter than he was when he played at Florida.
Fears, now in his 11th season coaching running backs in New England, was hard on the 5-foot-7 Demps at practice.
"He got tired running two runs, so I was kind of a little pissed off at him. I'd like to know what type of Olympic training they do," Fears said, tongue in cheek.
Turning more serious, Fears acknowledged that it would be difficult for any player who hasn't touched a football since early January and hasn't trained in football-specific drills over that time to transition with ease. At the same time, he doesn't think it will be long before Demps, who has some background in the team's offensive system from having played under former New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis at Florida, is in the groove.
"Skill guys can play a lot faster than big guys can. For him, it's mostly just getting his feet up under him, getting a little wind back in his lungs and getting used to catching the ball," Fears said. "I'm sure it won't take that long for a guy like him. He's such a great athlete, just based on what I've seen on film."
Fears threw Demps right into the fire on Wednesday, having him block in one-on-one blitz pickup drills against the Buccaneers. Fears liked what he saw, calling Demps' work "courageous."
If that sounded like over-the-top praise, Fears balanced it with a reminder that Demps is no longer on scholarship.
"I'm not going to go overboard. What he's done has been truly amazing and a great story, but out here, I ain't giving him nothing," Fears said. "He's going to earn everything he gets from us. No matter how I feel about him, unless he does it on the field, he's not getting anything else."
Demps seems up for the challenge. He said he signed with the Patriots because of the family atmosphere he felt on his visit, and how when he spoke with some players, it felt like he was already on the team. It helped to have former Florida teammates Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez and Jermaine Cunningham on the roster.
Demps' arrival has sparked thoughts of blazing-fast kickoff returns and potential dynamic play on offense. After all, it's not often a player with world-class speed joins a football team.
"It's kind of exciting to see him," Fears said, knowing he's far from the only one thinking along those lines.
From Olympic sprinter to Patriots running back? Jeff Demps is creating a buzz.