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Fullback McCrary at full speed

FOXBOROUGH -- Near the end of practice yesterday, Patriots fullback Fred McCrary helped open a running lane that would have been big enough for even Keith Traylor to glide through.

If McCrary has his way this season, it won't be the last time.

"I'm ready," said McCrary, who missed most of last season because of leg injuries. "I know what I'm capable of and I want to show it."

With the arrival of Corey Dillon in the offseason, the unheralded McCrary and backup Patrick Pass will be called upon to create space for the explosive Dillon.

McCrary and Pass opened training camp as the only two fullbacks on the Patriots' roster -- and they hope it's still that way at season's end.

McCrary looks to bounce back from knee and hamstring problems that eventually forced the Patriots to put him on injured reserve last November, ending his season. Pass hopes to carve a niche strong enough, likely as McCrary's backup, to keep a permanent spot on the roster.

"It's important we improve every day," said McCrary, who appears to have recovered from his injuries. "And that every day we are getting something out of practice."

At the urging of former teammate Rodney Harrison, New England signed the veteran McCrary last offseason as a free agent from San Diego to replace Marc Edwards.

Harrison watched firsthand as McCrary built a reputation as a strong, bruising run blocker opening lanes for Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson.

McCrary's dirty work played a big role in Tomlinson's Pro Bowl season in 2002. McCrary started all 16 games for the first time in his career as Tomlinson rushed for a franchise-record 1,683 yards.

Durability was also a plus for McCrary, who played in all but one game during four seasons (1999-2002) with San Diego.

But injuries caught up to the 31-year-old, who has also played with Philadelphia (1995-96) and New Orleans (1997-98).

After opening last season as the Patriots' starting fullback, McCrary strained his left knee against the Eagles in the second game of the season. He returned, only to suffer a hamstring tear Nov. 3 against Denver.

McCrary played in just six games (three starts), rushing for 3 yards on three carries and catching two passes for 12 yards.

"I'd never really been injured before, then all of a sudden I was hurt," said McCrary, who has known hard times. When he was out of football in 1998 after being released by the Saints, he worked as a corrections officer at a maximum security prison outside New Orleans.

McCrary had company on the sideline last season, as veteran fullback Larry Centers tore his right medial collateral ligament against the Giants Oct. 12, leaving the Patriots to plug the hole in the backfield with three inexperienced players. The committee consisted of Pass, who is built like a tailback, rookie defensive lineman Dan Klecko, and defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

This season, McCrary said he has approached training camp with renewed energy.

"You really appreciate the game a lot more when you're out," said McCrary, a Mississippi State graduate. "You realize how much you love the game, especially after going to the Super Bowl."

McCrary said his preseason preparation has been right on pace, which is good news for the 6-foot, 247-pounder.

"[The injuries] are in the past," said McCrary, who was drafted by Philadelphia in the sixth round in 1995. "And now you have to move on."

While McCrary looks to move on, Pass has hopes of staying on. A seventh-round pick of the Patriots in 2000, Pass has become a master at doing just that.

He worked his way up from the practice squad his rookie season and started two games at tailback, also logging duty as a kick returner and wide receiver. In 2001 and 2002, Pass took on the reserve fullback role despite his size (5-10, 217 pounds). He also returned kicks and continued with other special teams assignments.

"Being healthy and ready is the ultimate secret," said Pass, who has managed to stick around despite being a 239th overall pick.

Last season, Pass looked to be a strong contender to make the Opening Day roster again, especially after he averaged 4.2 yards per carry while leading the team in rushing during the exhibition season.

But with McCrary and Centers on board, Pass was the odd man out when the final cut came before the regular season.

"It was a business decision, and every team has to make them," said Pass, 26, who is entering his fifth NFL season. "I can't be sour about it. It's never a guarantee."

The Patriots thought highly enough of Pass to re-sign him when Centers was injured and McCrary was sidelined for the season.

Pass played in 13 games, including one start at fullback against Houston. He finished the season with 6 carries for 27 yards and 4 catches for 21 yards. Pass also returned 11 kicks for 254 yards, both career highs.

His jack-of-all-trades ability should come into play again this season. Pass and McCrary played fullback and worked out with the kickoff team at practice yesterday.

"It would be nice to be here the whole time," said Pass, who was also known for his versatility at the University of Georgia, where he was a running back, punt returner, and kickoff returner. "I want to help out wherever I can, at fullback, tailback or returning kicks."

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