Patriots running back Damien Harris is averaging 5.7 yards per carry since becoming a starter in early October. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

He received limited playing time as a freshman running back at the University of Alabama in 2015.

Damien Harris carried the ball just 46 times for 157 yards while the Crimson Tide relied heavily on Derrick Henry, who gained a Southeastern Conference-record 2,219 yards and won the Heisman Trophy during a national championship season.

Four years later, as a rookie with the Patriots, Harris once again did a lot more sitting and watching throughout last season.

A third-round draft pick in 2019, Harris carried the ball just four times for 12 yards, all of that coming at the end of a 33-0 rout of the New York Jets on Oct. 21. He was at the bottom of a depth chart that featured Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.

So 2019 was basically a redshirt season for Harris, who dealt with a hamstring ailment and was on the inactive list a majority of the year.

Harris took full advantage of his opportunity to play at Alabama starting in 2016 after Henry left for the NFL. Now that he is getting a chance to play on a regular basis for the Patriots, Harris is doing the same, making a favorable impression by going over the 100-yard mark twice in four games this season.

After missing the first three games this year because of a broken finger, Harris is enjoying the opportunity to be on the field on a consistent basis, with the next chance coming Monday night against the Jets.

“It’s been a dream come true,” said Harris during a video conference this week. “I’ve dreamed of this day, to be sitting in front of you guys (the media) since I first picked up a football. I can’t even stress enough how much of a dream come true this is for me and how grateful I am.

“That’s truly how I feel deep down in my heart. I love being part of this team. I love being a New England Patriot. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 8 years old. To have this opportunity and looking back to where I came from to where I am now, obviously my job is not done. It’s far from over. I haven’t made it to where I want to be.

“But just making it here, having this opportunity to go out there every single day with every single guy in that locker room is something that’s very special to me. Wherever life takes me, I will always be thankful for this opportunity that I have.”

Harris had a strong training camp and was in line for increased playing time, but he landed on injured reserve because of his broken finger and did not play against the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks or Las Vegas Raiders.

His first game against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs resulted in Harris gaining 100 yards on 17 carries, and after the offense struggled in losses to the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers when Harris had 19 and 58 yards, he gained 102 yards on 16 attempts last Sunday in Buffalo.

“Damien’s well prepared,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “Damien runs hard. He’s physical. He’s aggressive. Damien’s the kind of guy that if there may or may not be a hole, then he’s going to make one. When he gets into the defense as he did on Sunday, you’ve got a chance to maybe break a tackle or make somebody miss and create a bigger play.

“Very pleased with what Damien’s done. Like the way he plays, like his run style, think he gives us an opportunity to create some chunk plays with the way that he attacks the line of scrimmage and addresses linebackers and safeties at the second level. (He’s) a young guy that’s really taking advantage of his opportunities and making the most of it.”

Michel, who led the Patriots with 912 rushing yards a year ago, has missed the last four games because of a quadriceps injury suffered during a 117-yard performance against the Raiders on Sept. 27. He returned to practice on Thursday, and the team has 21 days to either activate him or put him back on IR for the remainder of the year.

Harris is not concerned about how having Michel back in the lineup will affect his playing time.

“I think no matter what, at least for me, my mentality is to go out there and compete to the best of my ability so I can help this team be successful,” said Harris. “There are a lot of external factors and a lot of things I can’t control. I understand that.

“My mindset is I’m going to control what I can control, just go out there with the mindset of getting better, regardless of what the situation is ahead. I know that’s my job and that’s how I can help this team the most by going out there every single day, working as hard as I can, putting my best foot forward and trying to do whatever I can to make this team successful.”

IN PREPARATION to play the NFL’s worst scoring offense, New England’s defense got a boost Friday, as cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive lineman Lawrence Guy returned to practice.

Gilmore’s appearance was more encouraging than Guy, who was more present than participatory. Defensive tackle Carl Davis was also back at practice after missing time because of a concussion.

Gilmore missed last week’s game because of a knee injury, while Guy is battling, shoulder, elbow and knee ailments.

N’Keal Harry, who also had a concussion that caused him to miss Sunday’s loss to Buffalo, sat out practice again, lengthening the odds against him playing Monday.

Running back J.J. Taylor missed his second consecutive day, presumably because of the same illness that held him out Thursday.

JETS QUARTERBACK Sam Darnold isn’t sure yet if his sore shoulder will allow him to play Monday night.

Darnold practiced Friday for the first time this week after taking a hard shot to his right arm at Kansas City on Sunday.

“Yeah, it felt all right,” Darnold said after being limited at practice. “Just taking it day by day.”

Darnold missed two games last month after spraining the AC joint in his right shoulder against Denver on Oct. 1. He was reinjured against the Chiefs, but an MRI revealed no further damage.


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