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Making himself useful

With Jerod Mayo expected to miss a number of games, Dane Fletcher (above) should see an increased role with the Patriots. With Jerod Mayo expected to miss a number of games, Dane Fletcher (above) should see an increased role with the Patriots. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Dane Fletcher doesn’t spend much time looking for signs of approval from his Patriots coaches.

The second-year linebacker has learned there are a few ways to gauge his performance.

“In New England, there aren’t too many pats on the back,’’ said Fletcher. “When you do your job right, that’s what you’re getting paid for. When you’re not doing it right, you’re not going to be around, I guess.

“When I’m not being told what to do, I feel pretty good about myself. No news is great news. You worry every day coming into that door whether you still have a job or not.’’

Fletcher doesn’t need many reminders about the philosophy. He was an undrafted rookie out of Montana State last season when he secured one of the final spots on the 53-man roster after training camp. And he did it after transforming himself from a defensive end to a linebacker.

In his time with the Patriots, Fletcher has been stacked with added responsibilities, and he could see even more time, as Jerod Mayo is expected to miss a stretch of games with a sprained MCL. Fletcher and linebacker Gary Guyton are expected to play increased roles against the Jets Sunday.

If the Patriots need Fletcher, Bill Belichick said, there won’t be any hesitation to call his number.

“We have a lot of confidence in Dane,’’ said the coach. “I’m sure whatever we ask him to do, he’ll work hard to do it. I have no doubt about that.’’

The progress Fletcher has made in a short time isn’t a surprise to his coaches at Montana State, where he primarily played defensive end in a 4-3 defense. Head coach Rob Ash used Fletcher’s versatility to strengthen special teams units, contribute to pass rushes, and provide energy on defense.

At the end of Fletcher’s senior season, he was named defensive MVP of the Big Sky Conference after collecting 67 total tackles and 7 sacks. His college career included a game in 2008 that one observer described as one of the greatest individual performances he had seen in person.

Against Northern Arizona in November 2008, Fletcher blocked two kicks, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, made six tackles, and recorded a sack in three quarters of a 25-23 victory. He didn’t play the fourth quarter because he injured his knee, but the performance was an example of the impact he could have on a game.

While Fletcher excelled in football, his first love growing up on a farm outside of Bozeman, Mont., was hockey. He was considered a stellar goaltender but ultimately chose to pursue football after high school.

Montana State defensive line coach Bo Beck used Fletcher’s hockey background to bring out the best in him.

“We were both goalies, but it wasn’t a mind-set of smashing guys like you see in hockey,’’ Beck said. “When playing defense, you have to be a little more collected, like when you play goalie. That’s what he had. He was really smart.

“He had a big-time motor on him, and playing hockey, you have to be a good athlete to be able to skate and do what those guys do. Plus, you have to be a little crazy to stand there and let a puck be hit at you.’’

Fletcher’s athleticism gave his coaches options. They moved him around and watched him become one of the best players to come through Montana State, according to Ash.

When Fletcher told the coaches he wanted to pursue a career in the NFL, they encouraged him. In April 2010, the Patriots signed him.

“We followed it like it was a soap opera or mystery you wanted to solve,’’ Ash said. “We were anxious every time a cut line came to see if he was still on the team. It was great when he made the team.’’

Fletcher realized there was a steep learning curve as he tried to keep up with the demands of learning a new position.

“It was an overload at first - I guess really this whole time,’’ he said. “It’s a lot. But I feel like I’m a pretty smart guy, so I get it. It’s just a lot of studying and a lot of off time that you spend here.’’

Said Ash, “We think it’s a pretty remarkable transition, that he went from playing with his hand on the ground in college to standing up as a pro. That’s not a very common transition. A lot of times it goes the other way. It’s been fun to watch.’’

Not only is Fletcher increasing his reps on defense, but the Patriots have inserted him at fullback a few times in the red zone, taking advantage of his 6-foot-2-inch, 244-pound frame.

“I think Dane has taken a big jump from where he was last year,’’ Belichick said. “Last year, he came in, really, as a converted defensive lineman. Made an impact for us in the kicking game. At other points in the year, did some things situationally on defense.

“This year, he came in and played inside linebacker right from the beginning of the year. He’s way ahead of where he was last year. There’s just really no comparison. “

Fletcher may take some satisfaction in his achievements, but he is sticking to the plan that helped him reach his first goals.

“I still have a lot to get better, but I feel confident,’’ he said. “That is the first and best thing I’ve done from last year to this year, is just feeling more comfortable with my surroundings out there and being able to adjust to what’s going on around me.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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