FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Some of the most exciting plays in Bill Belichick's tenure as New England Patriots head coach have come on kickoff returns, but the team has lost its spark in that area since the middle of the 2010 season.
That might be about to change with the addition of former Florida running back and U.S. Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps, who brings electrifying speed and playmaking ability that brings back memories of some of the Patriots' most dangerous returners in Belichick's 13 years as coach.
Who could forget Bethel Johnson in 2003 against the Indianapolis Colts? His 92-yard touchdown at the end of the second quarter was scintillating -- one of the signature plays in an unforgettable 38-34 victory.
How about Ellis Hobbs in the 2007 season opener against the New York Jets? When he caught the ball 8 yards deep in the end zone, everyone figured he'd take a knee. When he didn't, it seemed like a big mistake ... until he was racing 108 yards for a touchdown to set a team record for longest runback. Those were some of the initial sparks on what would become a 16-0 regular season.
More recently, Brandon Tate was a big weapon in 2010. No one was better the first quarter of that season, as he had 97- and 103-yard returns for scores, the latter of which broke open a close game at Miami at the start of the second half.
But ever since Tate tailed off dramatically later in that 2010 season, the Patriots have lacked a threat on kickoff returns that struck fear into opponents. For a while, some might have wondered if the Patriots even cared, considering that the NFL moved the kickoff up to the 35-yard line in 2011, thus eliminating many returns altogether.
But on Thursday, Belichick decisively dismissed that theory, which in retrospect was the first hint that a Demps-to-New England possibility was heating up. The Patriots needed a more dynamic returner, and Demps had just decided that he intended to play football after focusing on his track career.
So with the decisiveness of an explosive returner, the Patriots got right on it, flying Demps into town for a Thursday visit and officially closing the deal late Friday night.
"We didn't return them very well in any conditions, at any time [in 2011]. And still haven't, based on the New Orleans [preseason] game," Belichick said Thursday of the kick return struggles. "That's obviously an area we can improve in and we have worked hard in, but based on the results, still need to do a lot more work on.
"It's an important area in the game, a big momentum play," Belichick continued. "It's a way to answer the opponents' score or the start of the half, whatever the situation is there. We put a lot of stock in that, just like we do every other play."
Listed at 5-foot-8, 184 pounds at Florida, Demps was viewed as a mid- to late-round pick before he decided to focus on track instead of football. He won't be eligible to play until the third preseason game Aug. 24 in Tampa, but figures to be given every opportunity to seize the role as the Patriots' top returner, bumping running back Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman. Demps returned only two punts for the Gators, so Edelman -- the team's top option there -- should be on solid footing.
Meanwhile, Demps adds depth and more youth to an offensive backfield headlined by second-year players Stevan Ridley (third-round pick) and Shane Vereen (second-round pick), change-of-pacer Woodhead and rookie free agent Brandon Bolden. The top four shouldn't be affected by the addition of Demps, who figures to have a steep learning curve with a complex offense, especially when it comes to protecting the team's most important asset, quarterback Tom Brady. Demps could be a niche player on offense -- perhaps offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will draw up a specific play or two for him.
So, really, Demps projects initially as mostly a special-teams contributor. His presence on the roster, assuming he ultimately earns a roster spot, could mostly affect some of the "bubble" players whose projected contributions come mostly on fourth down, such as fullback Spencer Larsen.
On Friday, special-teams captain Matthew Slater was excited to hear about Demps when informed the team was close to finalizing an agreement with him.
"I'm a fan of his and a big track and field fan," said Slater, who was unaware of the Demps possibility because it hadn't been announced by the team yet. "Doing it as a youngster, and I was scheduled to do it in college but things didn't work out, I think it's awesome watching those guys do what they do and run. Getting a chance to watch Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, all those guys -- Yohan Blake. Obviously, Mr. Demps as well. I'm just a fan of the sport and appreciate what they do."
Now Slater can get an up-close look, and the possibilities are intriguing.
One of the knocks on Demps is ball security, as he fumbled 11 times in 424 touches at Florida. But when he's held on to the ball, the results have been dynamic.
So maybe now the Patriots' return game will return to what it once was -- a game-changing threat.
"The unit is only going to be as good as the sum of the 11 guys out there, starting with the guys on the front line," Slater said. "And, obviously, you need a guy who can do something with the ball in his hands."
In Demps, the Patriots might have just added that type of weapon.