FOXBOROUGH — When 18-year-old Gunner Olszewski arrived for fall camp at Bemidji State in 2015, associate head football coach Rich Jahner says he thought there was no way the defensive back would make the team as a true freshman.
“His senior year of high school, he had contracted shingles, so he lost all kinds of weight,’’ Jahner said in a telephone interview Monday. “My very first impression was, ‘Oh my gosh, he looks like a junior high student manager.’ I mean, the guy was skin and bones.’’
But Olszewski managed to avoid a redshirt year, impressing the coaching staff with his relentlessness and confidence, in spite of his smaller stature. Listed at a generous 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, Olszewski made an immediate impact by notching five pass breakups, seven interceptions, and 85 tackles in 11 games. His value also extended to special teams, where he returned 24 punts for 209 yards.
Olszewski built upon his successful freshman campaign, as he gained 10 pounds, improved his average yards per punt return, and dabbled in kickoff returns his junior and senior years. He finished his college career as a Division 2 All-American and Bemidji State’s all-time leader in tackles.
“That little bugger from Texas was just so good,’’ Jahner said. “We didn’t care what he played, we just knew he had to be on the field because he played so enthusiastically and energetically. He just had a natural ability.’’
Still an undersized underdog four years after his collegiate debut, Olszewski is angling for a similar trajectory in the NFL. Playing football for the Patriots is, of course, a different challenge than doing so at a small Division 2 university in Minnesota, but Olszewski has been making a name for himself during his brief time in New England.
Against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, he flashed his potential on a 28-yard punt return — one that ended with him nearly trucking Panthers punter Michael Palardy. That scrappiness is nothing new. In the words of Jahner, “that’s just Gunner doing Gunner things.’’
“That’s Gunner,’’ added Bemidji State head football coach Brent Bolte. “He’s going to try to take every yard. If you showed me that clip and asked what he would have done, if I had to make a decision, I probably would have said he would have tried to run him over.’’
What is new for Olszewski is his position change to wide receiver. Signed as an undrafted free agent in May, the 22-year-old helped bolster the Patriots’ depth chart at a time of need. With the recent returns of Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon, however, the room is getting a bit more crowded — dampening his chances of making the 53-man roster.
That being said, the reviews on Olszewski have remained positive.
“He’s really started from the bottom up,’’ coach Bill Belichick said Monday at Gillette Stadium. “He’s consistently gotten better and improved in things that we’ve asked him to do. He’s got a long way to go, too, but he’s shown a lot of improvement. He’s been out there every day, works hard, gets better.’’
“He’s a tough kid that comes to work every day and does everything you ask him as hard as he can,’’ added assistant coach Joe Judge, who works with Olszewski in both aspects of his game. “That’s all you can really ask. Whatever task you give him, he attacks it full speed. He’s made improvement throughout training camp because of his work ethic on a daily basis.’’
In addition to football, Olszewski started 91 baseball games for Bemidji State as a catcher. That experience, Bolte said, has aided his ability to field the ball and avoid getting squared up on punt returns. Both Bolte and Jahner are hopeful his versatile skills can facilitate a smooth transition and, if he doesn’t make the initial cut, make him a viable practice squad candidate.
“He had a little bit of a Jedi in him,’’ Jahner said. “He could feel the force and he knew what was coming and he could make it happen before it happened. That’s instinctive. That can’t be taught.’’
Regardless of what happens when the final cuts come Saturday, Olszewski will have a crowd cheering him on during New England’s preseason finale Thursday night. His former team has organized informal viewing parties for each of the Patriots’ preseason games.
“Everybody up here is hoping that maybe Gunner can pull off the same miraculous feat [as Minnesota native Adam Thielen] and be one of these guys that enters the NFL on an obscure note but is going to make a big splash when it’s all said and done,’’ Jahner said. “It might not be right away, but if you give him time, anything’s possible.’’