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Bruschi rolls in to practice, role unclear

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By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 17, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Back in a full-pads practice yesterday for the first time since July 31, Tedy Bruschi explained that his absence was due in part to age. It takes a 36-year-old linebacker a little longer to recuperate than a 26-year-old linebacker.

“You get a little bit older and you have to mend some aches and some pains,’’ said Bruschi. “That’s just why it took a little bit longer for me to get out here, but I’m feeling better now and hopefully I can get back to work.’’

Bruschi’s absence from training camp is a reminder that he won’t be the heart and soul of the Patriots defense much longer. Entering his 14th season and the final year of a two-year deal he signed after the 2007 season, Bruschi is the embodiment of the Patriots Way, but his body is nearing the end of its NFL run.

Perhaps that’s why when Bruschi, a seven-time defensive captain, was asked about the locker room void created by the departure of comrades and contemporaries Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel, he offered his imprimatur to second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo.

“I think the first and most obvious choice is evident when you look at Jerod,’’ said Bruschi. “He’s in the middle of the defense. He’s sort of establishing himself as a leader on the defense because it is his second year now and he’s made that progression into really being a good player. He’s one that is absolutely ready for that. Defensively, I think a lot of guys are ready here. I’m really fired up about a lot of things that Jerod is going to do.’’

Mayo has soaked up all he can from Bruschi, attaching himself to the veteran’s hip from the moment he arrived in Foxborough. Mayo has spoken often of his admiration for Bruschi and the feeling is mutual.

Mayo was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season after he led all rookies and the Patriots in tackles with 139, according to coaches’ calculations. It was the first time since 2005, when Bruschi remarkably returned to football after suffering a stroke, that someone other than Bruschi was the team’s top tackler.

“I think even if you talk to Jerod he’ll want more on his shoulders,’’ said Bruschi. “He’s that type of player. He wants to be good. He wants to be really good. His work ethic and any aspect of his game you can really see that he desires to be a good player. That comes with being a second-year player, a third-year player. He’s going to have a lot more on his shoulders than last year. It’s different. You look at him as a rookie last year, but now you look at him as a starter and a leader on this team and a leader on this defense. That’s something that I’m sure he’ll do fine with.’’

Mayo’s role is clear. He’ll be an almost every-down player. That’s why coach Bill Belichick tapped him to be the defensive player who has his helmet equipped with the coach-to-player communication device.

How much Bruschi will be on the field this season is less certain. With the Patriots playing more 4-3 defense, it’s hard to envision Bruschi and Mayo being on the field together as much as they were last season, when the team played predominately a 3-4 and needed two inside linebackers.

In the 4-3, more speed and athleticism is preferred at the linebacker spots, and with Mayo manning the middle, Bruschi’s role is uncertain since Gary Guyton is a better fit to play outside linebacker in the 4-3.

Even Bruschi said he is not sure what the move to more 4-3 means for him.

“Roles are being defined,’’ said Bruschi. “I know we have a lot of good inside linebackers. Gary Guyton is a good player. Jerod Mayo, of course you guys see what he can do. Even myself in my 14th year, every training camp I have to look at it as I have to come in to sort of establish a role for myself on this team, and this year is no different.’’

Bruschi’s role is that of a sage veteran in the locker room and a cagey one on the field, able to offer wisdom and insight to Mayo and anybody else.

The selfless approach Bruschi is taking to training camp and the possibility of a diminished role is an example of his leadership.

Any true leader knows that actions speak louder than words.

It could be challenging for Bruschi to get on the field as much as in the past, but since when has Bruschi backed down from a challenge?

“The challenge I faced today was coming back after a long layoff and sort of feeling like it was my first day again,’’ he said. “That’s the No. 1 challenge in terms of getting back to playing football the way I want to play it. Also, with myself and all the other linebackers in this room it’s about establishing yourself as a member of this team and a player that has a role on this team.’’

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