BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While his youth football team vied for a championship, Jaret Patterson watched from the sidelines, the 7-year-old's legs dangling from a silver metal bench.
Patterson hardly saw the field for the Bulldogs in Bowie, Maryland -- he had "the cleanest uniform on the team," as his mother, Janine, put it.
But he received a valuable message from Janine following that championship game in 2007, one that propelled him through three record-setting seasons at the University at Buffalo 13 years later.
"Instead of celebrating with the rest of the guys, I was in the corner tearing up," Patterson said. "She saw me and didn't allow me to be sorry for myself. She strictly told me that I'm not good enough yet and have to earn it. I'll never forget her just giving me those words, it kind of changed my perspective about how you approach this game."
If you followed college football during a sports-starved 2020 season, chances are you have heard of Patterson.
In six games, the Buffalo running back, 5-foot-7, 195 pounds, rushed for 1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns. That includes a video game-esque 409 yards and an NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns against Kent State on Nov. 28.
He was on pace to run for the most yards through a player's first three college football seasons since Ray Rice ran for 4,926 (2005-07) for Rutgers. Patterson, the 2020 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year and second-team All-American, left Buffalo as the school's single-season leader in rushing yards and touchdowns and second all-time rusher, behind former NFL running back Branden Oliver.
Patterson's accolades are easy to find, but with the 2021 NFL draft less than a month away (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland on ESPN and the ESPN App), there has been minimal hype surrounding him.
He is projected as a mid-to-late-round pick, with some analysts recognizing his productivity at Buffalo but casting doubt on his ability to be an NFL lead back.
"Fifth, sixth round, [teams would be bringing] a productive, hard-working, probably No. 2 back into the fold," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Patterson, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at Buffalo's pro day on March 18. "Middle of Day 3 is where I think he will come off the board."
Patterson has heard the doubters at nearly every stage of his career, dating to his youth football days. He plans to add his most recent critics to the list of people he has proved wrong.
"Jaret has always been overlooked -- that's been his mentality ever since he was little," Janine said. "This next journey is going to be a great journey for him, because he's going to surprise a whole lot of people."
'You're either most improved or MVP'
Jaret and his twin brother, James, were destined to be athletes. Not to pigeonhole them, but when your father, Tracy, achieves local-legend status as a high school running back and linebacker and your mother was a state champion on the track, people have expectations. The twins played soccer before switching to football, and neither was a starter right away.
James got his first opportunity at linebacker when a teammate forgot his helmet. He forced a fumble on his first play and never left the starting lineup; Jaret remained on the sideline and received the tough love from Janine after the season. And she had more than words of wisdom for her disheartened son. She also had a summer workout plan ready.
Both Patterson boys, age 21, still laugh when those summer workouts are brought up. They joined their older sisters, Jenna and Janay, for sessions in the humid Maryland weather -- always outdoors in the afternoon -- because Janine wanted her daughters to be ready for the hot gyms they would be playing in come AAU basketball season.
It wasn't fun, but if Jaret wanted the playing time, he needed to earn it.
"That's what I instilled in them. You're either most improved or you're MVP," Janine said. "If you want to be good, you've got to put the work in."
A high school principal in Baltimore, Janine is used to extracting the most out of kids who need the push.
"My mom has that fire. You can tell that's where we get it from," Jaret said.
Jaret blossomed into a star running back for St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, Maryland, eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark as a senior in the fall of 2016. A two-star recruit, he "struggled" during the process, more so than his more recruited brother. James, listed as a 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker, received offers from schools such as Florida Atlantic and UCF. Jaret received 11 offers, according to Rivals.com, but felt overlooked throughout his recruitment.
"I had to work. I wasn't the dude. There were always guys who were better than me, faster than me, bigger than me," Jaret said. "I just used that as fuel, even throughout high school, not being recruited as heavily as I thought I should.
Where it all started at... pic.twitter.com/sehHhsrrk7— Jaret Patterson (@__JP26) March 14, 2021
"I heard it all from coaches -- ACC, SEC, Big Ten -- 'You're a good player, but you're not the type of back we're looking for,' or 'You're a good player, but too undersized.' Just things of that sort [convinced me] to just put my head down and show you guys what you missed out on."
He got his first real taste of recruitment during a trip to Eastern Michigan with his brother and a few of their teammates.
Jaret treated it like a business trip. He dressed professionally ("like it was an interview") and was convinced he would receive his first scholarship offer. They didn't even have a nametag ready for him when he got there. Eastern Michigan offered James a scholarship but declined to meet with Jaret.
Filled with doubt, Jaret left the group and cried in a bathroom before his brother found him. Just like Janine did after their youth football title game, James reminded Jaret this was simply motivation.
"I told him he had to understand that [his offers] were going to come," James said. "Sometimes he'd feel like he wasn't the best, but me, as a brother, and our friends who are like-minded couldn't let him get down on himself."
'I'm not here to play around'
Even after the twins accepted scholarships as a package deal to Buffalo, Jaret had to wait to see the field. Or even campus, for that matter. Fellow incoming running back Kevin Marks committed before him, and with the team's available roster spots dwindling, Buffalo coach Lance Leipold reached out to Jaret with a proposition: grayshirt (wait an extra semester after the upcoming season to become a full-time student) and join the team for spring practice in 2018.
Jaret accepted but had to swallow his pride. James selflessly volunteered to grayshirt with him, and the two spent the fall of 2017 coaching at their alma mater, St. Vincent Pallotti.
"It was definitely humbling when you graduate high school and you have friends going off to college but you're still at home," Jaret said. "And they're asking you, 'Aren't you going off to college?' It kind of gets frustrating."
The Patterson brothers used the time wisely, training with their former high school strength coach, Ed Page, for the six months they spent in Maryland. It was a rigid schedule, not unlike the one their mother put them through when they were kids.
They would arrive at the school at noon and would work out through a combination of power lifting, speed and acceleration training and conditioning, then transition to coaching when the football team's practice began. Every day, Monday through Friday for six months. The brothers said the experience motivated them to make an impact as soon as they got to Buffalo's campus.
James earned a starting linebacker job by the end of spring camp in 2018. But Jaret ran with the third and fourth string -- although he did catch the coaches' attention from nearly the moment he arrived.
"Through my years of coaching, the common denominator among the guys who end up playing in the [NFL] is that their practice habits were never questioned," Buffalo offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said. "You could see that with Jaret."
Kotelnicki said Jaret's ability to make guys miss in his first spring with the team was eye-opening, and Jaret never became discouraged by the fact he would have to work his way up in a "loaded" running back room.
Jaret was so low in status that then-Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson wouldn't let the freshman run reps with him during a post-workout drill. But Jaret's desire to play boiled to a point that he approached Leipold following a game against Army in Week 5 of the 2018 season asking for any type of role.
"I had to show the coaches that I'm a playmaker, I'm a guy. I'm not here to play around," Jaret said. "I just told him, 'I'm not here to complain. I just want to contribute.'"
Jaret got his first start the following week, rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown in a win against Central Michigan. He finished the season with 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns, becoming the first freshman in Buffalo history to run for 1,000 yards. During the 2019 season, Jaret ran for a school-record 1,799 yards and cemented himself as one of the best backs in college football.
'A pro already in his approach'
Coaches comparing their current players to former ones can often fall subject to recency bias, and Leipold is well aware of this. It doesn't stop him from lauding Patterson.
"Like I always say, don't bet against Jaret Patterson," he said. "I've thought a lot about this. I don't know if I've ever had a more complete player in terms of going about his business. And I mean watching film, taking care of his body. He was in the training room three times a day this year.
"He's a pro already in his approach."
Kotelnicki said Patterson takes pride in the little things, like blocking when his number isn't called.
"There's a ton of film of him getting that done," he said. "Certainly, NFL guys look at that and say, 'that's the type of guy we're looking for.'"
Leipold called Patterson the best practice player he has ever coached and had an example ready to back up his statement.
Buffalo beat Bowling Green 41-17 on Nov. 17, when Patterson ran for 301 yards and four TDs on 31 carries. At the team's next practice roughly 36 hours later, Patterson forced his way onto the field for kickoff coverage.
Not returning kicks. Coverage.
"He just rushed for 300 yards and he's working on fundamentals to cover kicks," Leipold said. "Because he knows if he's going to have a chance to play at the next level, he's going to have to cover kicks. That's the type of kid he is.
"He wants to be on a team. Would he love to be a high draft pick? Absolutely. But he knows that if he's not, he'll have to do whatever it takes to be part of a team at that level."
'I think he loves that'
Buffalo's loss in the MAC title game "left a bad taste" in Jaret's mouth at the end of the 2020 season, enough so that he considered returning for another season.
Former Buffalo RB Patterson's practice habits set him apart
Former Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson is well known for his on-field production, but it's his practice habits that coaches say set him apart from his peers (Video by Marcel Louis-Jacques)
James, who has hardly spent a moment apart from his brother since birth, was one of the strongest voices against it, advising Jaret to maximize his longevity. Jaret also spoke with Oliver and said former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush gave him some good advice. Ultimately, it was Jaret's decision to turn pro.
"It was hard because I could've seen myself going either way," Jaret said. "Just hearing from my family and weighing my options ... I feel like this was a good time for me to declare."
Before leaving Buffalo, Jaret and Leipold went over his draft grades, which ranged from Rounds 3 to 7. None of it mattered to Jaret; he just wants in.
"My mentality is, it's not how you get in [the NFL], it's how you stay in," he said. "... You can be a first- or second-rounder and still get cut."
Jaret said NFL teams wanted to know three things: could he catch, could he run routes and where would his straight-line speed top out?
Jaret wasn't very involved in Buffalo's passing game with 20 career catches all coming in his first two seasons. Since declaring, he has trained in Florida alongside other NFL prospects such as North Carolina's Michael Carter and Louisville's Javian Hawkins, but he spends little, if any, time doing running back drills. His focus has been on receiver drills, sharpening his route-running, release and hands.
Jaret compared his game to former NFL running backs Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and Barry Sanders, and Leipold's evaluation of him doesn't make the latter seem so far-fetched.
"His ability to make people miss and then accelerate after that is what sets him apart," Leipold said. "He has great patience, he has outstanding vision. People will talk about [his straight-line speed], but when you look at the NFL, how many of those runs are there? People want productive yards on early downs. He did that better than anyone I've been around."
Kotelnicki said Jaret's ability to change directions quickly sets him apart from most running backs -- or football players, in general.
"He has the innate ability to go from 60 mph to 0, and then back to 60 really fast," he said. "A lot of people, when they go to change directions, there's a huge decrease in their speed, but not Jaret. Those are the things that make him really hard to tackle."
Jaret is ready for any role, even if it means grinding his way up from the bottom; that's his wheelhouse, after all.
"A lot of people are still doubting him, and I think he loves that," James said. "It's funny to me, he's just like, 'Oh yeah? You're gonna say that? You'll see.'"