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Linebacker plugs the gap

Mayo is heir apparent as defensive leader

Though the Patriots wound up losing that night, linebacker Jerod Mayo’s ferocious and gutsy play against the New York Jets in a game at Foxborough last November opened some eyes. Though the Patriots wound up losing that night, linebacker Jerod Mayo’s ferocious and gutsy play against the New York Jets in a game at Foxborough last November opened some eyes. (File/Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Jerod Mayo yanked off his helmet and struggled to catch his breath. His grandfather, Walter Johnson, a chief master sergeant in the Air Force, once cautioned him, “Everything hurts a little more when you are losing.’’

On a brisk evening last November, with the Patriots trailing the New York Jets in their own stadium, Mayo understood what he meant. Six weeks earlier against San Francisco, Mayo had torn up his left shoulder making a tackle. The injury not only lingered, it worsened every time he made contact with another football player, which was at least a couple dozen times a day.

Although he was in his first year in the NFL, Mayo knew what was expected. He played on, even though he couldn’t raise his arm above his head, even when the pain was so intense he knew he needed surgery. All the while, there was no mention of his shoulder on the team’s injury report.

He did not dwell on his status with his coaches, his teammates, and certainly not the media. The rookie understood his aches and pains were not for public consumption, nor were they an excuse for subpar play.

So on that November night, he chased down every moving Jets target he could, punishing himself as much as every running back and tight end he hauled down. When the game was over, Mayo had 23 tackles, 17 of them solo.

There was only a fleeting moment, when the defense came off the field and he plopped on the bench next to veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel, that Mayo let down his guard and groaned. He was tired, he was hurting, and so was his team.

“The kid was really banged up,’’ Vrabel said. “And still he was flying around the field, hitting guys.’’

The rookie’s respite lasted only seconds before coach Bill Belichick pulled off his headset and called out, “Mayo! Let’s go. Special teams.’’ Mayo jammed his helmet back on, steeling himself for another round of jarring hits. As he sprinted onto the field, Vrabel’s urgent voice stopped him in his tracks. “No!’’ Vrabel barked at Belichick. “Put someone else in for Mayo.’’

Later, when the rookie replayed the scene in his head, he couldn’t decide what was more stunning: that Vrabel overruled the coach or that Belichick actually listened and subbed in another player.

“I thought I had seen everything,’’ Mayo said. “But every day with the Patriots, there was something new.’’

Mayo’s transition from college ball at the University of Tennessee to pro football had been grueling. Belichick and his staff were demanding, relentless. The veteran players, each one more decorated than the next, challenged him daily.

Mayo straddled the thin line of exhibiting confidence without arrogance, of demonstrating respect without appearing subservient. He made plays, made mistakes. At times, he looked vulnerable in zone coverage. When he erred, safety Rodney Harrison refused to let it go, riding him mercilessly. When he succeeded, Tedy Bruschi reminded him there was still so much more to learn.

One by one, the veterans came to appreciate the talent and the attitude that Mayo displayed day after day amid confusing schemes, rookie initiations, and the challenges facing a team forced to compete without Tom Brady.

Of all the defensive leaders, Vrabel took the longest to come around. No. 50 kept his distance from Mayo - until Nov. 13, when the Jets came to town and the kid proved his mettle against one of the Patriots’ fiercest rivals.

“Hey dude,’’ Vrabel said to Mayo, offering his fist after a 34-31 loss to the Jets. “I’m with you.’’

Three months later, Vrabel was gone, banished to Kansas City, a salary-cap casualty deemed expendable, in part, because of the prolific Mayo, who started all 16 games and led the team in tackles with 139, who was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, who by season’s end was sporting a green dot on the back of his helmet signifying he was calling the defenses.

“I miss Vrabes,’’ Mayo said. “One of the smartest football players ever. You have no idea what he did. Sometimes when I screwed up, he’d take the fall for me. When the coaches were getting on me, he always had my back.’’

Who has Mayo’s back now? As the Patriots open the 2009 season, Vrabel, Bruschi, Harrison, Richard Seymour, special-teams guru Larry Izzo, and their 61 cumulative years of experience are gone.

The second-year kid with the green dot on his helmet had better be ready.

Rookie passes muster
Every veteran establishes his own set of criteria when deciding whether a newcomer passes inspection. Talent is only one part of that equation.

After all, everyone could see Jerod Mayo had the ability.

“He was just so fast,’’ Harrison said. “I hadn’t seen anyone play linebacker like that since Ray Lewis.’’

After watching Mayo leap over a guard to tackle a running back a yard from scrimmage, Vrabel drew his own conclusions.

“It’s almost not normal to move like he does,’’ Vrabel said. “Nobody runs like that. He looks like a free safety out there.’’

The advance billing on the kid was all positive, but Harrison reserved judgment until he saw Mayo interact with teammates. Countless rookies with excellent pedigrees had strutted into town with inflated egos and even more inflated expectations.

“But Jerod just wasn’t your typical high first-round draft pick,’’ Harrison said. “He’s no Michael Crabtree [the 49ers holdout receiver], put it that way.’’

Mayo was respectful, asked questions. When Bruschi told him something, Mayo looked into his eyes and held his gaze.

“So many of the other rookies were saying, ‘Yeah, sure,’ as they were looking away,’’ Bruschi said. “Those were the guys who didn’t stick.’’

In the first Jets game of the year, Mayo blew a zone coverage that resulted in a first down. For the rest of the season, every time Harrison called for that coverage, he made a point of adding, “So Mayo, do you know what to do on this play?’’

The first three or four times, the kid merely nodded. Finally, Mayo flashed a half-smile and asked, “Why are you still busting me? Haven’t you ever made a mistake?’’

Harrison smiled in return; it was the response he’d been waiting for. Mayo’s unflappable nature, he knew, would be a major asset for a complicated defense that required level-headed players who could handle pressure.

“Whether he had two tackles and five blown coverages, or 11 tackles and zero blown coverages, Jerod’s demeanor was the same,’’ Harrison said. “You root for a guy like that.’’

Early life lessons
In his junior season at Kecoughtan (Va.) High School, Mayo’s team was clinging to a 3-0 lead against rival Hampton when he intercepted a pass and returned it to Hampton’s 30-yard line. It was late in the fourth quarter and it appeared as though his pick might seal the game. But Mayo was called for holding the receiver at the line of scrimmage - even though he wasn’t within 20 yards of a Hampton player.

“We were in zone!’’ screamed Kecoughtan coach Tommy Austin. “You blew the call!’’

While Austin and his staff beseeched the officials to pick up the flag, Mayo calmly turned to the referee and said, “Sir, I was never near a receiver. I was covering grass.’’

The official was unmoved. The penalty stood, and possession was awarded to Hampton at midfield.

“I was just so irate at that point,’’ Austin said. “I was jumping up and down and using every swear I could think of. Most kids would have made a face, flipped the ball, something. But there was Jerod in the huddle telling everyone, ‘Come on, we gotta get ready for the next play.’ ’’

Mayo’s composure is an acquired trait, honed through his years growing up in a single-parent home in Virginia with three brothers who lived to beat him in wrestling, footraces, boxing matches. Mayo’s mother was constantly replacing windows broken by wayward baseballs, footballs, and basketballs. As he ferociously competed with his brothers, it took a while for Jerod to learn how to win - and how to lose.

Walter Johnson took each of his grandsons to a BMX bike racing track and ushered them to the peak of a very steep hill. He put young Jerod on the bike and told him, “Go on down, now.’’

“But I’m afraid,’’ Mayo responded.

“Of course you are,’’ his grandfather answered. “That’s why it’s going to be so wonderful when you do it. You have to be ready for anything.’’

Student of the game
Mayo’s game preparation was another component closely monitored by the veteran New England defensive corps. Harrison and Bruschi, self-professed “film rats,’’ were surprised and pleased to see Mayo keep pace with them.

“Before Jerod came along, James Sanders put the most time in,’’ Bruschi said. “He was the guy, when you were leaving for the day, who was still in the film room with a plate of supper in his hand. Now he’s got company. Mayo’s in there with him.’’

Mayo continues to draw comparisons with Ray Lewis, but his own fixation is with ex-Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks. He has watched hours of film of Brooks, tracking his blitzing, tackling, and pass coverage.

“He’s a complete player, an impact player,’’ said Mayo. “That’s what I’m after.’’

Although many believe New England’s shift to a 4-3 defense will free Mayo to maximize his speed and make game-changing plays, the linebacker cautions against putting too much emphasis on his role.

“That defensive line is made up of a big bunch of boys,’’ Mayo said. “I’m guessing they will eat up a lot of tackles.’’

It will be Mayo’s job to direct traffic for that front line, a huge responsibility for a player in his second season, yet Bruschi insists the kid is ready.

“So much of it is already second nature to him,’’ Bruschi said. “Think about what Mayo has done. After one year, he’s ready to be the linebacker in the AFC. “And as amazing as it seems, it’s what that defensive line needs him to do. They can’t make those kind of calls when they are helmet to helmet with 300-pound linemen. It has to be Jerod. He’s got to be decisive and confident.’’

Last year, when Mayo showed up to practice the week before the Seattle game and found the green-dotted helmet with the headset in his locker, he was firm yet soft-spoken in the huddle. When he looked at Vrabel, Harrison, Vince Wilfork, and the rest, he simply couldn’t bring himself to ramp up the volume and bark out orders.

“How was I going to do that when a year earlier I was pretending to be them in my video games?’’ he asked.

Next, a game-changer
Wilfork noted a more assertive Mayo in the huddle during preseason this year. He is impressed by the kid’s football intelligence, but has reminded Mayo he must, above all, be concise and decisive with his calls.

“I told him, ‘Don’t think so much,’ ’’ Wilfork said. “ ‘This is your defense. If you call it, then call it. If it’s wrong, then let us all be wrong together. You can’t try and correct things at the line of scrimmage just as the ball is being snapped.’

“Jerod is going to make mistakes. We all do. The idea is to make sure we stay on the same page.’’

Mayo’s blitzing has already been markedly better, and Belichick noted that Mayo was playing “at a much higher level’’ in preseason.

Although two teammates confirmed that Mayo had offseason surgery, the young linebacker would not offer any insight regarding his past injury.

“Ah, I really don’t want to talk about that,’’ he said. “It’s not what we do here, you know?’’

Last season, Mayo did not record a single sack or interception. The game-changing defensive play, said Bruschi, is the next step in the progression.

“He’s a great cover linebacker in man-to-man,’’ Bruschi said. “Some guys have speed, some have quickness. He has both. His zone coverage isn’t all the way there yet, but that’s not because of a lack of ability or effort. It comes with experience. You have to feel the receiver behind you in zone coverage. That takes time.’’

Harrison is looking for something less tangible than actual football statistics from Mayo.

“Watching him run down guys and tackling them means nothing to me,’’ Harrison said. “I want to see him grow in terms of the mental part of the game. That’s what separates the great players from the good players.’’

Mayo has the phone numbers of Harrison, Bruschi, and Vrabel on speed dial, yet he’s remained hesitant to call them, particularly Vrabel, unannounced.

“I will,’’ said Mayo, “when things calm down.’’

As Vrabel adjusts to a new system and a new city, he keeps one eye on his former football home. Last week, his son Tyler started tackle football, and as he watched his little boy fly around the practice field tackling kids, he noticed when most of the other young boys made a good play, they popped their heads up, their helmets bobbing, to see who noticed. Not Tyler. He kept playing, gleefully oblivious to his surroundings.

“My son loves football to death,’’ Vrabel said. “I was watching him thinking, ‘Mayo’s like that.’ His passion for the game made you want to pick up your own game a notch.’’

Who knew? The veterans were so busy counseling Jerod Mayo, it never occurred to them the kid with the green dot on his helmet - the heir apparent to the Patriots’ defensive legacy - might actually teach them a thing or two along the way.

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