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Starting to feel it's his time

FOXBOROUGH -- Tully Banta-Cain was in the midst of giving an ans . . . whoa!

Suddenly, he became preoccupied with a laser from a television camera aimed at his eyes, seemingly about to vaporize him. He held up his hand as a shield while he tried to relocate his sight.

``Boy," he said with a smile, ``that thing's strong."

Now, where was he? Oh yes, discussing the possibility of his first NFL start tomorrow -- technically a hypothetical prospect, given the lingering suspense over Tedy Bruschi's status, which could trickle down to Banta-Cain. But there's a good chance Banta-Cain will take the field with the Patriots' first-string defense. In that case, absorbing the glare from the camera lens was good practice. He'll be in the public's crosshairs against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium.

That's where he'll step in at outside linebacker for the departed Willie McGinest -- unless Bruschi is sufficiently recovered from a broken hand to start, in which case Mike Vrabel could reclaim his regular spo t on the outside and Banta-Cain would sit. At the very least, he will get appreciable work and chances are he will be succeeding a linebacker with sterling credentials.

He knows that but he doesn't dwell on it, at least not for public consumption.

``I try not to feel any pressure," he said. ``I'm confident in my own ability. I'm really trying to come into my own. Those guys are great players. They were learning tools for me. But I think we all have different skill sets."

Banta-Cain's most valuable skill may be keeping his composure and self-esteem. After 38 games as a reserve in his first three seasons, he's eager but not overwhelmed by the likelihood of his first start.

``It's been kind of tough" to crack the lineup, he acknowledged, ``because the guys who have been here are big-time players in the league. But if I'm competing for a job, I figure my time will come. I never thought, `I have this many years to be a starter.' I never said, `Oh, I have no chance to start this year.' "

Banta-Cain essentially had to start from scratch after the Patriots selected him in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. An outside linebacker when he enrolled at the University of California, he was shifted to defensive end as a sophomore and played the position proficiently enough to receive second-team All-America and first-team All-Pac-10 recognition as a senior. However, he's merely big (6 feet 2 inches, 250 pounds), not behemoth, so linebacker was his pro destiny.

He thought it was an ideal fit.

``I always considered myself a linebacker," he said. Not that he had a choice.

Actually, he's been largely a special-teams operative, with McGinest & Co. ahead of him. In a sense, he's supposed to be the new Willie McGinest, but he has a different role model.

Tully Banta-Cain.

``I'm here; he's not here," said Banta-Cain of McGinest. ``They're not trying to get me to play like anyone else. I have to be my own player."

With that in mind, he's immersed himself in the role of neophyte starter, capitalizing to the fullest on the perks during Bruschi's absence.

``I just try to take advantage of it in practice," Banta-Cain said. ``You definitely get more reps, and everything I learn in meetings, I have to transfer onto the field, to game-like situations."

Which -- the heck with the exhibition season -- won't present themselves until tomorrow.

``I did some positive things in the preseason, and I still have some things to work on," said Banta-Cain. ``I'm not satisfied."

Maybe not, but at least he won't have to stand in the shadow of two of his cousins -- former baseball star Jeffrey Leonard and ex-NBA forward Rodney Rogers -- at the next Banta-Cain family reunion. Leonard is a good friend, Rogers a virtual stranger, but Banta-Cain views his athletic relationship to each one similarly.

``I'm still young and in the league," he said. ``They're older and not in the big leagues. It's my time now."

Starting tomorrow, when the game and the glare are for real.

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