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Gator’s dream realized

Hernandez 3d Patriot from UF

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 25, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Before the NFL draft began Thursday night, there was a great deal of buzz over the Patriots potentially taking a certain University of Florida offensive player in the early rounds.

They wound up taking a Gator from the offensive side of the ball, but it wasn’t quarterback project Tim Tebow. It was tight end Aaron Hernandez.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound Hernandez is the rare New England-born football player who went on to a big-time college program. Raised in Bristol, Conn., Hernandez initially believed that he would end up at UConn like his brother D.J., who played for the Huskies from 2004-07.

But according to Hernandez, his coach at Bristol Central High, Doug Pina, was a huge Florida fan and sent tapes of his best player to the Gators. They liked what they saw.

“They came up and were interested and they told me, ‘Why not take a trip down for the spring game,’ ’’ Hernandez said after being drafted in the fourth round, 113th overall. “I walked inside the stadium and fell in love with it and I ended up committing while I was down there.’’

He broke family ranks by joining the Gators. Not only had D.J. played quarterback and receiver at UConn, their father, Dennis, was a defensive back for the Huskies in the mid-1970s.

Dennis Hernandez died in 2006 after complications from hernia surgery.

Aaron made the most of his time in Gainesville, and became Tebow’s most trusted receiver last fall as a junior. He led the Gators with 68 catches (most in the nation by a tight end) for 850 yards and five touchdowns, and became the first SEC player to win the John Mackey Award, given to the best collegiate tight end.

Being drafted by the Patriots wasn’t just a dream come true for Hernandez, it was a goal. He grew up a fan of Drew Bledsoe, wearing a No. 11 jersey around the house.

Rated as a second-to-third-round pick by most draft observers, Bill Belichick scooped up Hernandez in the fourth.

“We got off to a good start [yesterday] with Hernandez. We were surprised we were able to draft him. He has a good opportunity to help us at that position,’’ Belichick said.

Hernandez was the second tight end New England drafted, joining second-rounder Rob Gronkowski.

But Hernandez can be used as an H-back and moved into the backfield, while the larger Gronkowski will be used mostly on the line of scrimmage.

“I was hanging out with him a little at the Combine,’’ Hernandez said. “We have a good relationship, too. He’s a cool kid. I’m looking forward to playing tight end with him.’’

Hernandez said there isn’t one particular player he patterns himself after; instead, he tries to take different skills from different players — say, the way Antonio Gates uses his body or the way Tony Gonzalez always catches the ball with his hands.

Scouting reports say Hernandez has outstanding hands and can make the difficult catch, catches the ball without breaking stride, has a knack for finding holes in coverage, and is durable.

Negatives include a lack of bulk and occasional concentration lapses.

Hernandez was the third Florida player drafted by the Patriots, one of the benefits to Belichick’s relationship with Gators coach Urban Meyer and the time he has spent around the team in recent years.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com.

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