FOXBOROUGH - The plan was for Kevin O'Connell to be a passive observer this season, not an actual passer.
The rookie quarterback was supposed to sit in meetings with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel and soak it all in. He was going to get a redshirt year, but then a defender in an actual red shirt - Bernard Pollard of the Kansas City Chiefs - drove into Brady in the season opener, tearing the ACL and MCL in the quarterback's left knee, and elevating O'Connell from emergency quarterback to emerging quarterback.
Last week, in a 38-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins, O'Connell came on to replace Cassel with 6:05 remaining. He was in for only two series, but looked surprisingly comfortable and in command, completing 3 of 4 passes for 25 yards - hardly the impetus for a quarterback controversy, but a sign that O'Connell could be in the Patriots' plans this season.
"It has kind of been talked about that they want to try to get me in," said O'Connell, "hopefully, when we're up by a lot, just because every snap I can get in there is a plus for me as far as learning and continuing to grow."
According to O'Connell, being one heartbeat away from quarterbacking a team that many picked to be a Super Bowl contender hasn't changed his season.
"My preparation hasn't changed too much, but just my mentality of being one snap away," said O'Connell. "You got to prepare like you're going to play every week, and if you don't, it's a blessing because Matt was able to go the whole time."
It's easy to see why any NFL team would like O'Connell. He is 6 feet 5 inches, 225 pounds, with a rocket arm and natural running ability. He played high school basketball with current University of Arizona star Chase Budinger, who is expected to be an NBA draft lottery pick.
While those physical attributes are impressive, it's O'Connell's intangible qualities that leave an impression. O'Connell, who hails from Carlsbad, Calif., may never play like Brady, but he has more in common with him than just California roots.
The 23-year-old carries an air of quiet confidence. He is articulate but not outspoken. He is focused but has fun. He knows his place as a rookie in the locker room, but when he steps into the huddle, he knows his place is as a leader.
"He loves to compete," said San Diego State coach Chuck Long. "He got to the point where he would come over to the sideline and say, 'Coach, I can do this; I can get this done.' We would call the play he wanted, and he would get it done.
"He was a guy so confident in his ability, especially as a runner. He knew as a runner he could beat everybody on the field. It was like, 'Don't worry if no one gets open, I'll just beat you with my legs.' "
They liked what they saw
At San Diego State, O'Connell was thrust into a leadership role. As a redshirt freshman, he came off the bench to start the final five games of the season, despite playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He was named a team captain by the end of the season. O'Connell said that call to the captain's role is the greatest honor he has received as a football player.
"It was honestly special," he said, "because guys I kind of looked up to were the juniors and seniors, and any time you get called out by teammates in a positive way like that, it's special."
The Patriots saw something special in O'Connell, and a predraft workout on a windy March day in San Diego with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels confirmed it.
"The workout with Josh, I had an understanding right away for how he coaches and his mentality and it really kind of clicked," O'Connell said. "I really respected the way he handled his business and how he went about things."
The Patriots drafted O'Connell in the third round, despite the fact that he didn't put up the same gaudy numbers as some of the other prospects. The most touchdown passes O'Connell threw in college were 19 in 2005. As a senior last year, he completed 58.5 percent of his passes and did most of his damage with his legs, setting school records for quarterback rushing yards (408) and touchdowns (11). The Aztecs went 16-31 during O'Connell's career and never had a winning record.
"I really think stats in general are kind of overblown in college," said McDaniel. "There are a lot of guys with great stats that end up never making it in the NFL for one reason or another.
"I think you have to take a lot into consideration when you look at a player. He made a lot of good plays, moved in the pocket. He made throws we try to use in our offense.
"You notice late in games when they trailed - and they trailed quite a few times - this guy was playing hard and really trying to be a leader and brought his team back a few times and kept them in the game quite a few times. You liked a lot of the intangibles you saw with him."
Dealing with adversity
Injuries and upheaval at San Diego State may have obscured O'Connell.
After spending three seasons, including a redshirt year, under coach Tom Craft, O'Connell had to deal with a coaching change prior to his junior season, when Long took over.
In his first game under Long, against UTEP, O'Connell completed his first 12 passes and was 12 of 14 for 97 yards when he tore a ligament in thumb of his right (throwing) hand running a quarterback draw. He had suffered the same injury during his junior year at La Costa Canyon High School after hitting his hand on a helmet during a walkthrough. It left him unable to grip the ball.
"It was tough, but dealing with that adversity kind of helps you grow into being a little bit more mature and being able to handle things," said O'Connell, who missed five games for San Diego State with the thumb injury.
Maturity aside, O'Connell is an NFL work in progress - the Patriots are still refining his mechanics to improve his accuracy - but he showed in the preseason, when he audibled against the New York Giants to set up a touchdown pass, that he's a quick study.
Still, McDaniels tried to temper expectations, saying all young quarterbacks, from Brady to Matt Gutierrez, go through the same growth process.
But at some point the Patriots may have to turn O'Connell loose, even if it means just utilizing his running ability inside the red zone, an area where the Patriots have struggled - they rank 27th in the league in red zone touchdown efficiency.
O'Connell will be ready if called upon, and he's still learning from Brady and Cassel.
"Yeah, [Brady] is definitely still around and watching film," said O'Connell. "He's definitely still part of things. Being around Matt day in and day out has been great also, seeing the way he prepares and to see kind of the mentality of where he used to be the backup, and now he's a starter.
"His mentality beforehand, it hasn't changed from the time before Tom got hurt. He's prepared the same way every week, and that's how I'm going to try to go about things."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org