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Maroney returns to Minnesota for MNF

At the tender age of 21, with a seven-figure nest egg tucked away in low-risk investments already earning dividends and the likelihood that he'll spend the next 10 years or so toting around a football for a living, Laurence Maroney probably hasn't devoted a lot of time laying the groundwork for his NFL afterlife.

Given his background, though, the New England Patriots' rookie tailback might want to consider pursuing a real estate license. After all, Maroney, a 2006 first-round draft pick and already one of the league's most productive first-year players, certainly understands the concept of time sharing.

Although he enters Monday night's game at Minnesota as the top rusher on New England's roster and the leading ground gainer among all league rookies, Maroney has yet to make his first regular-season start. That role belongs to 10-year veteran Corey Dillon and probably will remain his, at least for the rest of this season, barring injury.

"It's a great setup, really. As much as you want to be the guy, to come in and be able to learn from a guy like Corey, and to not have the pressure on your shoulders some other rookies might be experiencing, it's not too bad. Plus, you know, I've done it before."
Laurence Maroney, Patriots RB, on sharing carries with Corey Dillon

Which, it seems, is fine with Maroney.

"It's a great setup, really," said Maroney of an arrangement in which Dillon has started every game, but the two tailbacks have split carries almost evenly. "As much as you want to be the guy, to come in and be able to learn from a guy like Corey, and to not have the pressure on your shoulders some other rookies might be experiencing, it's not too bad. Plus, you know, I've done it before."

Indeed, he has, and for Monday night's game at the Metrodome against a resurgent Vikings franchise, Maroney will return to the scene where he first experienced having to share the football with another talented back. Just as the Vikings and the University of Minnesota share the Metrodome as a home, Golden Gophers head coach Glen Mason believes in having two backs share the rushing load.

So for his first two college seasons, Maroney split time with Marion Barber III, now the No. 2 tailback behind Julius Jones with the Dallas Cowboys. And then in 2005, before he bypassed his senior season to go into the 2006 draft, he shared the position with Gary Russell, a very talented runner who is academically ineligible for this year.

In his three college seasons, Maroney was more quarter horse than workhorse, averaging 220 carries per year, but only once notching more than 225 attempts. Still, he departed Mason's program after just three seasons as the second-leading rusher in school history with 3,933 yards and 32 touchdowns. He ran for 1,000-plus yards in all three seasons. Remarkably, because of the presence of Barber and then Russell, the dependable Maroney started in just 14 of 36 games.

At a position where players demand the ball 20-25 times per game, Maroney is selfless enough to understand that less can mean more. It's a mind-set Maroney developed at Minnesota, said Gophers offensive coordinator Mitch Browning, and it has served him well so far in his debut NFL season.

"There are a lot of adjustments and pressures involved in going into the NFL, especially as a first-round draft choice, a guy everyone is going to be watching," said Browning, who will attend Monday night's game. "To be able to go in knowing that it's not all on you to produce, that you're going to get your carries but in the context of the offense and in the big picture, that has to be a good feeling. And the thing with Laurence is, he's not one of these guys who is going to [complain] if he's not getting [the ball] 30 times."

Through the first six games of the season, Maroney has 93 touches from scrimmage. He's logged 86 rushes for 361 yards and three touchdowns and has seven receptions for 77 yards. Maroney has returned 12 kickoffs for a 27.9-yard average, best among rookies, and third-highest in the league. Last week, he had a 74-yard runback.

Dillon has carried 82 times for 328 yards and four touchdowns and added two catches for 22 yards. The 32-year-old tailback, historically contentious on and off the field, was initially perturbed that the Patriots brass invested a first-round choice on his eventual successor. But Dillon, who has rushed for 10,757 yards and 73 touchdowns in a career that has been underappreciated because he spent much of it in Cincinnati, seems to understand that splitting the workload will extend his tenure.

The tailback tandem has lifted the Patriots into the No. 6 spot in the league in rushing offense and coach Bill Belichick isn't likely to alter his running game philosophy at this point. And frankly, why should he, since the Dillon-Maroney combination affords him the best of both worlds?

While his résumé includes some long touchdown runs, Dillon remains a classic inside pounder, a runner who doles out as much punishment as he absorbs. Maroney is a more facile runner, a tailback who can run between the tackles, but always seems to be trying to bounce the play outside. He doesn't always look like he's playing at his 4.48-second speed in the 40, but seems to simply glide to the outside. Yet there is also an undeniable explosiveness to his game.

"Speed has never been an issue for [Maroney]," Belichick said. "If you can get him out in open space, you have a chance to turn some shorter plays into longer ones, because he can definitely outrun the pursuit."

What the New England rookie cannot outrun is the demand from family and friends for tickets to the prime-time matchup with the Vikings, who enter the contest ranked first in the league in defense versus the run, allowing just 70.8 yards per game and 3.1 yards per rush. Maroney's mother, who raised him as a single parent, will travel from St. Louis for the game, and there will be about 15 other supporters on hand, too.

It seems the Patriots' rushing load isn't the only thing Maroney will share on Monday night.

"To me, it's just another game, really," Maroney said. "But the people around me, they've made a big thing of it, because of the homecoming thing, going back to Minnesota. They want to share the experience with me, and that's fine."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.