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Little men on this campus

New Patriots get a mini-education

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Brandon Spikes was a captain, an All-SEC pick, a finalist for the Butkus Award, and was an All-America selection by three organizations after his senior season at Florida.

Basically, he was the quintessential big man on campus.

But once they arrived at Gillette Stadium Thursday, Spikes and his fellow Patriots newcomers took an instant tumble from the top of the college football pecking order to the bottom of the NFL food chain.

They are rookies.

Yesterday, 26 players were on the Patriots’ practice fields, having taken part in meetings and receiving their playbooks the night before. As several acknowledged, it is still football, but they are learning everything again — from terminology to how stretching is done in New England to their new teammates’ names.

“The thing about our guys is most of our players are very experienced players on their college teams,’’ Bill Belichick said. “Some of them were seniors or third- and fourth-year juniors, and they were some of the best players on the team or they were the most experienced.

“Now, they’re the least experienced. Now, they’re freshmen all over again. The elevator starts at the bottom and they have to ride it up again.’’

The bottom started at 10:15 a.m. yesterday, with assistant strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash putting the players through their paces — offensive players in white jerseys on one side of the field, blue-clad defensive players facing them. Unlike most days, when he’s leading stretching, Nash at times has to get on the grass and show what he wants the young men to do.

It is all part of the learning process.

“It’s just like learning a new language,’’ said Spikes, one of the Patriots’ three second-round picks in last week’s NFL draft. “For all of us, we were speaking English, and now we have to learn French.’’

“It’s all brand new to us right now,’’ first-round pick Devin McCourty said. “It’s the next level to our football careers. There’s more intensity.’’

As Belichick noted, for nearly every player there is a significant difference between the schemes and plays they ran at college and those the Patriots run. Tight end Rob Gronkowski didn’t move around much with the Arizona Wildcats offense, but he will likely be moved all over the line of scrimmage and also motioning with the Patriots. Former Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham practiced in a two-point stance most of the day, since he will most often play as an outside linebacker in New England’s 3-4 defense.

The players from Florida – Spikes, Cunningham, and tight end Aaron Hernandez — might have a bit of an advantage; while the Gators’ system isn’t exactly like New England’s, Belichick and Florida coach Urban Meyer are friends, and their organizations are run similarly. Meyer is a demanding coach and runs a tight ship, just as Belichick does.

Although it did not appear that any players were at a distinctly different position than they played in college, Taylor Price was playing on special teams, something he rarely did as a standout receiver at Ohio University.

Belichick said Price’s size/speed combination — he is listed at 6 feet, 212 pounds — makes him a good candidate for special teams, but being eager to jump in and showing a quick knack for it could go a long way into playing time for a rookie.

Before his first practice as a professional, Price acknowledged he had butterflies, “but once you get that sweat going, it feels like high school or college again.’’

After their morning session, which lasted just more than an hour, the players were in meeting rooms to go over their performances and learn a little bit more.

They repeated the process after the afternoon session, and will do it again today, with two more practices scheduled.

Many players are overwhelmed and might continue to be as they participate in full-team minicamps, then training camp in the summer with players who know the ins and outs of the Patriots’ system.

But Price seems to have things in perspective, even as his head is filled with new terminology that seems like a foreign language.

“You try not to let it get to you, but it’s still a game,’’ he said. “You try to find the joy in it. We’re still big kids playing a game.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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