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Patriots have special plans for young core

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By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 4, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — A young player stuck at the bottom of a depth chart shouldn’t feel hopeless. At least that’s the way the Patriots’ Sam Aiken looks at it.

“If you’re not a starter or a backup, special teams is the key,’’ Aiken said.

Aiken should know. He has been a special teams standout throughout his career and last season he balanced those duties with time at receiver.

The Patriots have plenty of younger players looking for a way to be noticed this season, and their moment could come on special teams.

New England drafted cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round, a player known for his special teams play. Two rounds later, the Patriots selected punter Zoltan Mesko. And receiver Brandon Tate, entering his second season, is expected to give a boost to the kick return unit.

Individually, they may be able to make an impact at their positions, but special teams coach Scott O’Brien is more interested in seeing an overall improvement in his group.

One area in particular is kick returns. Last season, the Patriots ranked 15th in kick returns, averaging 22.7 yards per kick, after having been third in 2008.

“I would say the overall return game, and kickoff return [needs improvement], but it’s like everything else,’’ O’Brien said. “When you’ve done this for a long time, things constantly change . . . but you always have to be able to break down segments, either schematically, by players, or whatever, to find out where you can improve on everything that you do. You can be the best in the National Football League, and you’re always still trying to improve.

“It’s a combination [of things]. We’re always breaking things down, trying to get a better scheme. What are we seeing more of now, relative to the years before? How are we matching up personnel? How did the change in the rules last year with the wedge really affect us?’’

Tate set the NCAA career record in combined kick and punt return yards (3,523) at the University of North Carolina.

“Obviously, all of the returners in this league are good,’’ O’Brien said, “[but] they’re only as good as those other 10 guys.

“Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure there are: the explosive guys, the playmakers. But that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for that guy that not only has the physical skills, the eye control, the instincts of setting up blocks and that type of thing, but the speed to make explosive plays. But it’s the other guys that are giving him that opportunity to get started.

“So there’s a combination, and young returners really grow.’’

When evaluating potential draftees this year, O’Brien said he saw plenty of film of McCourty blocking kicks and Mesko booming punts. While McCourty’s selection in the first round may have caught some by surprise, O’Brien was excited.

“When we drafted him I was as happy as everybody else,’’ he said. “I evaluated him covering kicks and blocking his kicks and doing those things. He’s one of them [who could play special teams].

“When the team starts to develop, then you start to place the guys in [on special teams] relative to how Bill [Belichick] sees their other roles and responsibilities.’’

Mesko is the only punter on the roster after the team decided against signing Chris Hanson, but Mesko hasn’t let up about earning his place on the team.

“Well, the NFL is a business,’’ Mesko said. “So you never know when your job is on the line. I haven’t made the team yet. I’m just trying to improve day to day.’’

With so many aspects of special teams, there are plenty of opportunities to go around. For O’Brien, the process of getting ready for another season never changes. He is entering his 20th NFL season as a special teams coach but just his second with the Patriots. Even with his experience, he must learn the skills and tendencies of the players.

“The years are all the same, trust me, but the setting is different, the players,’’ O’Brien said. “It wasn’t really the young players my first year here because I came in with them as part of that group. It was the older players — even though some of the older players I had other places I’ve been, too.

“It was really fortunate for me last year coming in, being new, but not really new to Bill, so there was a comfort level, and that helped. I have to know everybody because you have to deal with everybody, and it’s hard when you first get here and guys have been here.

“But this year it’s a lot easier, obviously, in that aspect of it.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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