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Fall before the rise

Tumbling in draft fueled Hernandez

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 16, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Before he became an All-American at the University of Florida. Before he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end in 2009. Before he decided to forgo his senior year, and before he was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Aaron Hernandez was enamored with carrying the football.

Running with it, in fact.

But receiving it? The thought of being a receiver of the football, specifically at tight end, initially didn’t appeal to him much.

“I was a running back growing up, then a receiver my freshman year in high school,’’ said Hernandez, who played at Bristol (Conn.) Central High, where as a senior he made 67 receptions for 1,807 yards and 24 touchdowns (the latter two state records).

“They switched me from running back to receiver so I could play on varsity,’’ he recalled. “I actually didn’t mind it because I wanted to be on varsity, but the next year they wanted to move me to tight end, but I still wanted to play running back. I didn’t want to move to tight end at all.’’

But when he found himself matched up against linebackers, whom he could easily beat at the line of scrimmage and lose on his pass routes, Hernandez started to warm to the idea.

“I just loved running the routes and catchin g the ball,’’ he said. “It worked out for the best, I guess.’’

Four games into his rookie season with the Patriots, the 20-year-old Hernandez has been afforded the clarity of hindsight. He acknowledged yesterday the issues that caused his stock to tumble on draft day. Although it had been reported he failed multiple drug tests at Florida, Hernandez admitted to just one failure for marijuana.

“I had a feeling [falling in the draft] was coming because of the off-the-field issues,’’ Hernandez said. “But I knew I was ready to play at this level and I felt like I worked hard enough and I knew coming to this level people would help me get prepared to play where I am now.’’

Asked if he was motivated to prove people wrong when he went in the fourth round, Hernandez replied, “I loved that it happened. It opened my eyes and woke me up. Now I’ve got to strive for greatness again.’’

But such an opportunity might never have presented itself if Hernandez had never made the switch to receiver and eventually to tight end at such a formative time in his football career. He gave a glimpse of his talent as a high school junior in 2005 when he made nine catches for a mind-boggling 376 yards (the seventh best total in national high school history) in a 45-42 loss to Newington (Conn.) High.

“He’s probably the smartest football player I’ve ever been around,’’ said Brian White, Florida’s tight ends coach, which is saying a lot when you consider the Groveland native was surrounded by a lot of intelligent players when he was a quarterback at Harvard from 1985-86. “He’s like one of those crazed supercomputers. He’s not even near his genetic ceiling.’’

At Florida, Hernandez became one of Tim Tebow’s favorite targets, making 68 catches for 850 yards to become a unanimous All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, and the first tight end in league history to receive the Mackey Award.

“He’s a dynamic guy that can catch the ball like any wide receiver and make the hard catches,’’ said Steve Addazio, Florida’s offensive coordinator. “You can get the ball in his hands as a tailback and he’s really dynamic there, and he can block at the point. It’s hard to find guys like that throughout the country.’’

“Aaron is an extremely versatile player,’’ said Tebow, a first-round pick of the Broncos. “I was able to count on him during many crucial situations. He’s a great competitor who rises to the occasion when his team needs him.’’

If the way he was used in his first four games as a pro is any indication, Hernandez could be called upon to provide an offensive wrinkle when the Patriots host the Ravens tomorrow afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

“Aaron has been a great addition to this offense,’’ said Tom Brady, who first connected with Hernandez on a 45-yard pass in the opener against the Bengals that ranked as the longest first reception ever for a Patriots rookie.

“He reminds me of like it was with me and Tebow,’’ Hernandez said of Brady. “We have a good connection. He kind of knows my instincts and what I’m going to do and I have a good feel where he’s going to put the ball and where he wants me to go, so I’m glad we’ve got a good connection.’’

That much was evident Sept. 19 against the Jets, when Hernandez led the Patriots with six receptions for 101 yards. Against the Bills Sept. 26, he led the team again with six catches for 65 yards and added a 13-yard rush on an end-around. It was Hernandez’s first NFL rushing attempt. It ranked as the longest run by a tight end in Patriots history.

“I think Aaron has done a pretty good job of taking advantage of his opportunities,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “He’s had some opportunities to make some plays and he’s done a pretty decent job of that. [He’s] done well with the ball in his hands after the catch, made some yards on some catch-and-run plays.

“He’s been on the field a lot. He’s taken a lot of snaps. He works hard after practice with the quarterbacks and also working against our defensive players one-on-ones. He’s got good talent, he’s a smart kid. He understands football. He’s an instinctive player. If he keeps working hard then I think he should continue to get better.’’

And in the Patriots’ offensive scheme, where the open man is likely to be the one Brady throws to, Hernandez knows its his priority to get open.

“The hybrid tight ends like Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates are so dangerous in this league, because you don’t know how to cover them and how to play them. I just think it’s an honor to be even talked about like guys like that,’’ Hernandez said. “I just love the receiving part of the game. I just love catching the ball.’’

Four games into his NFL career, Hernandez already has shown himself to be a great catch for the Patriots.

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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