FOXBOROUGH — When it came time to decide where he would begin his professional football career, Roy Finch flashed back to his childhood, and to the team he grew up rooting for.
Bypassed in all seven rounds of last week’s NFL Draft, the running back from the University of Oklahoma was forced to sit and wait again, hoping that at least one team would express interest in bringing him on as a free agent.
“When the Patriots called, they were my favorite team since I was little, and it was a perfect fit,” Finch said.
But Finch has no obvious ties to New England. He says he grew up in a military family, moved around a lot, but always pulled for the Patriots. Why?
“I don’t know,” Finch said on Thursday, meeting with the media at Gillette Stadium. “I guess the colors, the Patriot on the side of the helmet — so classic — and I guess when Tom Brady took over, it was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ He was such an exciting player to watch.”
He’ll be able to watch Brady up close now, joining a Patriots team that lost arguably its most valuable running back from a season ago when LeGarrette Blount signed with the Steelers. But they return three other tailbacks (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden), drafted James White in the fourth round, and signed another back after the draft in Stephen Houston.
The Patriots’ backfield might be crowded, but all Finch wants is a chance, something he didn’t get much of the last two years with the Sooners. After averaging close to 10 rushes per game his first two seasons, Finch got his hands on the ball just nine times as a junior (seven rushes and two receptions, despite playing in all 13 games), then carried it 59 times (for 347 yards) as a senior.
Sooner fans had a healthy debate the past few seasons about Finch’s reduced role, given that one of the most exciting players on the team was having a hard time finding the field. Oklahoma coaches weren’t too forthcoming, although offensive coordinator Josh Heupel did say during Finch’s junior season, “As Roy continues to handle himself in a mature way and practice better, he’s going to continue to earn more touches.”
The perception might be that Finch was underutilized at Oklahoma. Was he?
“I really don’t know. It was unfortunate . . . I just took it in stride, knew there was like a greater purpose, and something great was going to happen. I’m here,” Finch said. “The Patriots gave me an opportunity, and I’m taking full advantage of it.”
Finch’s size — he was listed by Oklahoma at 5 feet 7 inches, 167 pounds — and open-field skills could prompt a position change. He said he played slot receiver some with the Sooners, and would be open to that role with the Patriots. He also occasionally handled kickoff duty in college, averaging 25.6 yards per return.
Like the other rookies experiencing an early taste of NFL life, Finch simply wants to contribute, no matter where he lines up.
“Pretty much anything: slot receiver, halfback, kickoff return, punt return. Explosive positions where the ball can be in my hands,” he said. “Just score. Break a long run, be explosive with the ball in my hands, no matter where I’m at. That’s my mentality.”
He showed enough during his time at Oklahoma for the Patriots to take a chance on him; this is a team that’s known for using players in any position where they can help, so maybe it will end up being the right fit for Finch.
Overlooked at OU, passed over in the draft. Yet Finch is a player who’s been known to fill a highlight reel, and without the heavy lifting done by other running backs in college — his 262 rushing attempts over his four seasons were slightly more than the 221 White had as a senior — he said he’s fresh and ready to work. There’s a roster spot to be won.
“I feel like you should play with a chip on your shoulder regardless, if you were a first-rounder or a seventh-rounder or undrafted,” Finch said. “This league is so competitive, everyone is talented, so if you don’t have that edge, mentally, physically, then someone is going to have an advantage on you. You want to stay hungry.
“I really don’t model my game after anyone but me. I look up to guys in the league, but I’m my own player. I’m trying to make my own way.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.