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Taking sides in their own defense

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - Andre Carter’s hands are massive. They are also mangled.

They have served him well during his 11-year NFL career, as he has pushed off and through blockers, batted down passes, and tackled ball carriers.

What Carter’s hands cannot do is catch a football.

And that is why the 6-foot-4-inch, 255-pound veteran is a defensive lineman and not a tight end.

“Sometimes the truth hurts,’’ Carter said with a chuckle Friday. “I couldn’t catch the ball. I gave up hope on that. They tried me at tight end . . .

“Vince Wilfork will vouch for me. He’ll make fun of me on how I catch the ball. I got these paws, all I use them for is grabbing and tackling, that’s it.’’

Wilfork more than concurs.

“Oh, my gosh,’’ he said. “Andre has two left hands. They’re about the size of King Kong now - his hands are huge - but he has no hands.’’

In a lighthearted press conference Friday, coach Bill Belichick joked that defensive players are on that side of the ball because at some point, a coach told them they just couldn’t hack it on offense.

“Let’s put it this way: At whatever point a coach takes a player from offense and puts him on defense, there is usually a reason for that,’’ said Belichick. “I would say the reason usually is that he’s not enough of a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball.

“What coach is going to take your best playmaker and put him on defense? You just wouldn’t do that, all things being equal.

“If the guy can’t catch but he’s a good athlete or he’s everything [else] but he doesn’t have great hands, at some point you get a receiver who is a better pass-catcher and you put this guy over on defense.

“I tell the defensive players all the time: Don’t kid yourself. If you were a big enough playmaker, you would have stayed on offense. They would have put you out there and you’d be out there having 100-yard receiving games or 150-yard rushing games. You’d be doing that. Don’t kid yourself.’’

Wilfork takes umbrage with that line of thinking. Though he is listed at 6-2, 325 pounds (give or take a breakfast or two), the Patriots’ defensive anchor takes pride in being extremely athletic and agile for a man his size, and both Belichick and his teammates have backed up his claims.

Wilfork played quarterback and safety in his youth. But he started to gain weight in the fourth grade, and soon became too big to play in his own age group, and also too young to play against kids that were a similar size.

When Wilfork showed up at Santaluces (Fla.) High as a freshman, having not played organized football in about five years because of his size/age conundrum, coaches took one look at the 275-pound teenager and promptly made him a defensive end. A year and a few more pounds later, he was bumped inside to tackle.

And Wilfork wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I never looked back. I actually liked it,’’ he said. “I wanted to defend, you know.

“That was one of my things, because I always tell people: It’s easy to shoot a basket or make a hoop or easy to catch a ball or a touchdown, but to try to stop someone, that’s the challenge, and actually deliver a hit, to be aggressive.

“So I was always a defensive guy. And I still love it to this day.’’

Some players reach the NFL before they’re flipped to defense. Troy Brown was a beloved, versatile receiver on the back nine of his career when Belichick turned to him in a pinch, needing a backup cornerback in 2004.

This year, Belichick has turned little-used receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater into part-time defensive backs. As a slot receiver similar to Brown, Edelman has a particular skill set and mind-set needed to excel there, qualities Belichick believes are similar to those needed to play corner or safety.

“There is an element of playing strength that you need inside there, that you may or may not have with perimeter receivers,’’ Belichick said. “But I think you need that playing strength inside, where there’s blocking or tackling or just dealing with forcing the run or collision in the slot.

“There’s an element of short-space quickness that you have to work in in that position, whereas the further out you get, generally the more space there is to work in.

“In the slot there, you have a lot of people around you - you have guys in front of you, you’ve got guys outside, you’ve got guys inside - and sometimes it can get a little sticky in there.

“There isn’t a lot of clean space to work, so having quickness and having the ability to get through those spaces or defend in them, to be able to move laterally, quickly, it’s a similar skill set.’’

Kyle Arrington said he began focusing more on playing cornerback in high school, when there was a glut of running backs at Gwynn Park in Maryland.

Football is kind of like pop culture: professional athletes want to be rappers and musicians, and rappers and musicians wish they were professional athletes. Wilfork says all offensive guys think they could excel at defense, and defensive guys know they’d be good on offense.

He recalled a day a couple of years ago when Belichick allowed the players to switch sides and run some red-zone series. The defensive guys won, and the offense had to run laps.

One thing is for certain, however: The defense masquerading as offense that day is probably lucky it didn’t have Carter as a receiver.

“For being that size, you would say, OK, athletic guy, can probably throw a ball, catch a ball,’’ said Wilfork. “No. No. Not him.

“But he has another specialty - speed and rushing the passer and playing defense. And he does a hell of a job doing that.’’

Sometimes having two left hands works out for the best.

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

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