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Cobbs is in the running

FOXBOROUGH -- The young running back packed his bags for one weekend, because that's all the Patriots promised him.

``They flew me in on a Friday and I was planning on leaving that Sunday," he recalled.

More than three months later, rookie Patrick Cobbs is hoping his longer-than-expected itinerary stretches through the 2006 season. He's making it hard for the Patriots to let him go after totaling 143 rushing yards on 26 carries and making five receptions for 100 yards -- to go with three touchdowns -- through three exhibition games. While much of Cobbs's production has come against second- and third-string players, coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that Cobbs has had some positive plays.

It's been an unexpected rise for Cobbs, who arrived at Gillette Stadium for a tryout during the team's May rookie minicamp. At the time, he had just received a contract to play for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, but put that on hold. It was a good choice -- the Patriots offered him a contract after that minicamp.

Now Cobbs is one of a few on-the-edge players who hope to catapult their way onto the regular-season roster with a strong performance tonight against the Giants (Ch. 5, 7:30). All NFL teams must trim rosters to 53 players by Saturday.

``You know the [cut] date is coming, it's in the back of my mind," said Cobbs, who figures to see a lot of action tonight with the Patriots' first-stringers not expected to take on a heavy load. ``There are a lot of guys that are battle-tested that play on this football team in my position, some great backs. I'm just having fun. I try not to focus on all that other stuff."

The 5-foot-8-inch, 210-pound Cobbs, who was the all-time leading rusher at the University of North Texas with 4,050 yards, is likely battling Heath Evans for a spot behind Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk. Veteran running back Patrick Pass is also part of the mix, but has yet to practice this preseason.

Cobbs, 23, has quite the underdog story. Coming out of high school in Oklahoma, he wasn't heavily recruited despite leading Class 4A with 2,354 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior.

``Same old story with me," he said. ``I was going to be too short. Too slow."

He ended up at North Texas, the alma mater of Pittsburgh Steelers great Joe Greene. On the day he decided to attend the school, Oklahoma State called, but Cobbs didn't waver. He was keeping his word even though in football-crazed Texas the team was ``overshadowed by all the bigger schools."

Cobbs broke through as a junior, leading Division 1-A in rushing with 152.7 yards per game. He set the school record with nine straight 100-yard rushing games and also established the Sun Belt Conference record for rushing yards in a season.

``I was getting all these phone calls, saying you need to come out [in the NFL draft]," he said. ``I didn't buy into all the hype."

He returned to North Texas but broke his thumb before the 2004 season started, then tore a knee ligament in the team's second game. Freshman Jamario Thomas stepped into North Texas's I formation, run-based offense, and led the nation in rushing that year.

``You couldn't underestimate the impact Pat had on Jamario," said Hank Dickenson, a senior associate athletic director at North Texas. ``Instead of sulking or saying, `Here's a guy taking my spot,' he looked at it as a guy he could help. That was Pat. Always with a smile and always wanted to work."

Cobbs returned in 2005, graduated with degrees in sociology and applied arts and science, and led the Sun Belt Conference with 1,154 yards rushing. Still, he wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, probably because some thought he was a product of a run-based system.

The draft passed and there were no calls. Then, in the ensuing days when undrafted players sign free agent deals, Cobbs received little interest, except from the CFL. That's when the Patriots stepped up, and Cobbs has thrived under the watchful eye of running backs coach Ivan Fears and teammates such as Faulk.

``Any questions I have, I go straight to Kevin, he tells me how it is," Cobbs said.

Cobbs's performance has created quite a stir back in Denton, Texas, where North Texas is located.

``It's a great thing for us to follow, our coaches and our kids stay on top of it," said North Texas coach Darrell Dickey. ``My wife gets up every day and reads the transactions, hoping he's not in them. The first night we saw him play [against Atlanta], we were in meetings and had the game on TV. When he took a [57-yard] pass for a touchdown, I started screaming."

``When he was coming out of high school, when we recruited him, we wondered why aren't there more people on this guy? He's making us proud here."

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