FOXBOROUGH — It was all in Cole Strange’s hands — and the rookie delivered.
Bill Belichick turned the end of Friday’s Patriots practice into a punt-return competition featuring some guys who are accustomed to fielding them and some guys who aren’t, and it was Strange, the burly guard, who stole the show.
Following an initial duel between rookie Marcus Jones and Tre Nixon, Belichick tapped Strange and defensive lineman DaMarcus Mitchell to square off.
Jones and Nixon held up well after seven rounds of catching boomers from Jake Bailey and Jake Julien, including a couple of chances when they already had footballs in their hands — and in Jones’s case, stuffed up his shirt (”It was about four or five,” he said, “I don’t have long arms, so you see how that goes”) — and no winner was declared.
Up stepped Strange and Mitchell, who both fielded their first attempt cleanly. Mitchell, holding a ball in one hand, muffed his second chance. Strange, also holding a ball, circled under his second opportunity and snagged it, prompting a huge celebration from the offense.
Though there was nothing but bragging rights on the line, Jones said whenever Belichick mentions the word “competition,” it’s about going all out.
As for the work of the 6-foot-5-inch, 305-pound Strange, Jones, an accomplished collegiate returner, was duly impressed.
“Oh, you seen some athleticism for sure,” said Jones. “So that was one of those situations like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he had it in him,’ so that was good to see.”
Not participating: QB Brian Hoyer (undisclosed), RB James White (PUP), CB Jonathan Jones (PUP), S Jabrill Peppers (PUP), DB Myles Bryant (nonfootball injury list), OLs Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber (nonfootball injury), DL Deatrich Wise Jr. (undisclosed).
C David Andrews (shoulder) was activated off PUP, and Bailey was removed from the nonfootball illness list.
Wise and Stueber were the only two players not spotted working out in some way, shape, or form.
DRESS CODE: Helmets and shells.
TOP PLAY: Nixon skied to snag an end zone fade from Mac Jones despite having corner Shaun Wade in his pocket all the way through the play. The throw, catch, and coverage couldn’t have been better; it was just an excellent 50-50 win for Nixon.
▪ Jonnu Smith made several nice plays, his best coming in the back of the end zone when he leaped and grabbed a Jones bullet before getting his feet inbounds. Credit safety Kyle Dugger for making Smith work for it. Smith beat Dugger on a similar route a few plays later.
▪ Hunter Henry hung on to another Jones touchdown pass despite an accidental collision with receiver Kristian Wilkerson.
▪ Davon Godchaux batted down a Jones pass at the line of scrimmage on the first play of the first period of 11-on-11s.
▪ Bailey Zappe, who received increased reps with Hoyer out, threw his best ball of the week, dropping a dime on an end zone fade to Ty Montgomery, who held on despite blanket coverage from Wade, who is having a nice week.
▪ Adrian Phillips picked off Zappe’s first throw of the day.
▪ Jalen Mills gobbled up a Jones throw (despite wearing mini-oven mitts) intended for Jakobi Meyers. It was unclear whether Jones threw to the wrong spot or Meyers ran the wrong route, but they chatted after the play.
▪ DeVante Parker pulled in an end zone fade from Jones (Mills in coverage) but there was disagreement in the media tent about whether he got his feet down (I voted yes).
▪ Jones fired a TD to Meyers on the final play of the day. The QB rolled right, directed some downfield traffic, then hit Meyers.
▪ The first field goals of camp were kicked, and judging from the press tent angle, Nick Folk went 6 for 6 from 30ish, 35ish, and 40ish yards.
ODDS AND ENDS
▪ Bill Murray has officially changed his position and number. A defensive lineman wearing No. 97 his first two seasons, Murray is now wearing No. 62 and is listed as an offensive lineman. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
▪ Several of Folk’s warmup kicks crashed into the media tent. No reporters or laptops were harmed.
▪ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz (father of James) took in practice and had a lengthy chat with longtime pal Belichick.
▪ Marcus Jones did a penalty lap for a muffed punt.
▪ The club spent one period doing a walk-through-like blitz-pickup drill.
▪ Tight ends Henry, Smith, Dalton Keene, Devin Asiasi, and Matt Sokol signed autographs for fans.
Saturday: Practice, 9:30 a.m. (gates open at 8).
Monday: Practice, 9:30 a.m. (gates open at 8).