Rookie Spikes shifts right into the fast lane
As he realizes what’s being asked, a smile creeps onto Brandon Spikes’s face. Rows of big white teeth emerge and contrast sharply with his thick black beard, and by the time the question is finished, he is wearing a gator-sized grin.
How does a star at the highest level of college football, the leader of one of the nation’s best defenses, come under so much scrutiny throughout the NFL draft process?
“I just look at it as, ‘That’s life,’ ’’ said the Patriots rookie linebacker. “That’s the way it is. I know deep down that I’m a football player and I really love this game. I play with a lot of passion and a lot of energy, and that’s all I can handle — what goes on on the field. I kind of block all that [other] stuff out.’’
His answer is the high road, but the smile shows that he knows he has gotten the last laugh. A relatively slow time in the 40-yard dash had some questioning whether Spikes had the athleticism to excel as a linebacker in the NFL, but his play this preseason has done plenty to quell those doubts.
The second-round pick from Florida has seen extended time with the first-team defense and collected a team-high eight tackles while playing a majority of the snaps in last Thursday’s 27-24 victory over the Saints in the exhibition opener.
Spikes’s standout play has been a continuation of what was a stellar career in Gainesville, Fla., for coach Urban Meyer. Spikes was a main cog in the Florida defense during the team’s national championship run in 2008. He accumulated 307 tackles — 31 1/2 for losses — in a 47-game career and earned first-team All-America honors in his junior and senior seasons.
Spikes said last Thursday’s game was a moment he’d been waiting for his entire football life.
“NFL, dream come true,’’ he said. “It was like I was still dreaming.’’
The game marked his first time on the field after a seven-month break following Florida’s 51-24 win over Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s football,’’ Spikes said. “It’s the same game. It’s just the margin of error is really small, so you’ve got to make sure you go through the stuff in your head pre-snap and try to execute when the ball is snapped.’’
The smooth transition might be due in part to the unique style that Spikes brings to the Patriots defense. Earlier in camp, coach Bill Belichick said that although Spikes’s tactics aren’t always in line with the techniques his staff preaches, he still manages to get results.
“Now that he’s in our defense, some things he does are a little bit different than the way we would teach it, but he still does them well,’’ Belichick said.
Spikes was surprised to hear about his coach’s comments.
“I just kind of trust my eyes, and I just attack whatever I see,’’ Spikes said. “I’m an instinctive player. I know that. They know that. That’s kind of why they probably give me room to just read things.’’
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has noticed what the rookie can bring to the team.
“He’s every bit the person I thought he was,’’ Wilfork said. “Hard-nosed, tough player, loves football. Exactly what we need on this football team — somebody that loves this game, and who’s not afraid to hit, smart, tough.
“It’s a transition for Spikes also, but like I said, everybody’s been doing a real good job of coming in and learning the defense, doing what they have to do to be on the field to help this ball club, so I’m still excited.
“Now we get the chance to get on the field and put some things together that makes it even more exciting. Can the game hurry and get here, can the season hurry up and start?’’
Spikes said many of his new teammates have been quick to help him adjust to his new surroundings, but playing with inside linebacker Jerod Mayo has been especially informative.
Spikes always respected Mayo’s game from afar when the former first-round pick was a member of rival Tennessee. Now, Mayo has been instrumental in helping Spikes learn the details of a new defensive system.
“He does a great job just helping me get lined up and making sure I’m in my spot and making sure I execute the defense the way coach [Belichick] and [linebackers coach Matt Patricia] want me to,’’ Spikes said.
When Spikes was drafted in the spring, he spoke of the high hopes he had for himself in his rookie season, but a chance to start beside Mayo wasn’t something he expected. As training camp progresses and the season approaches, Spikes said, he is ready to take on whatever role Belichick and the staff ask of him, whether as a starter or not.
“I want to be an accountable player if my number’s called,’’ he said. “I just want to come in and get the job done.
“I don’t want guys to think, ‘Oh, he’s a rookie. He might be second-guessing.’ I just want them to be confident that they can trust me and know that I’ve got their backs.’’