FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It all started with Devin McCourty.
When the New England Patriots drafted McCourty in 2010, thus began Bill Belichick’s love for defensive players at Rutgers University.
Over the last three seasons, Belichick has often spoken about McCourty’s intelligence, how he recognizes things on the field almost before they happen.
In 2012, the Patriots signed undrafted defensive tackle Justin Francis of Rutgers. He stuck with the club.
All the Patriots did was draft three former Scarlet Knights — cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the third round, linebacker Steve Beauharnais in the seventh — and sign another undrafted free agent from Rutgers, safety Brandon Jones.
Belichick says that having so many former Rutgers players is a coincidence. But maybe it isn’t.
Before Greg Schiano left Rutgers to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the two became close. And Belichick said after the draft, “I’d say the players he recruits and the programs he runs is in a lot ways similar to what we do. So the fact that he’s recruited those kids four to five years ahead of when they come into this league and they’ve been in a program that’s, in a lot of ways, probably similar to ours, then it’s probably not surprising that we would like some of the kids he’s produced, both talent-wise and total makeup.”
Belichick calls them all smart and instinctive, bright and unselfish, productive and hard-working — exactly the type of players he wants.
“Football is important to them,” he said.
For whatever reasons Belichick picks them, the former Rutgers players are quite glad to be together. That was obvious Friday afternoon in talking to the four attending New England’s rookie mini-camp.
For three days they were immersed in the Patriot Way, something which can be daunting to someone on their own in a new city.
“Obviously we have a lot of information to give them in every area, not just football, but the whole transition in becoming a professional athlete and in most cases for these guys, relocating to a part of the country they’re not too familiar with,” said Belichick.
The four Rutgers rookies seemed glad to have each other.
“We’re all close,” said Harmon, perhaps the surprise pick of the draft by the Pats. “You know going into a city where you don’t know anybody can be hard. But we’ve all got each other and we’re all close friends, best friends.
“We know this is going to be a long journey, a hard journey too. And to get through it you are going to need someone to lean on and we’ve got each other.”
Harmon is an interesting kid. The Pats took him with the 91st pick , in the third round, well before he was projected to go. Heck, some draft analysts had him going undrafted.
But, as he said, that doesn’t matter anymore.
“The draft is over, I’m here,” he said. “Coach Belichick saw something in me. So the draft is over. I can’t worry about the draft. All I can worry about is learning this playbook and communicating with my teammates and learning this defense and learning special teams and helping this team.”
Harmon still has to take one more final exam before he can graduate with his degree in labor relations. He has a 3.47 GPA and was looking to apply to law school if football didn’t work for him. Obviously he’s a pretty smart kid, as are his Rutgers friends. He believes that is what makes them all so attractive to the Patriots.
“They know what type of players we are, we’re hard-working players who love the football game and are very smart,” he said. “Intelligent football players at the same time. That’s exactly what he grooms here and takes from the draft and free agency and we feel we fit in quite well with his program.”
Jones, the undrafted free agent, said the Rutgers guys all look out for each other, giving encouragement when needed, tips when asked. It helps, he added, to know that McCourty and Francis are here.
“It’s good seeing familiar faces,” he said. “When you go into a new place it’s sometimes difficult because you don’t know anybody, but coming here with Devin and Justin Francis and the guys I’m coming in with this year, it’s definitely a blessing being in that situation.”
Ryan agrees, but only to a point. He knows this is not going to be easy for any of them.
“It’s new to all of us,” he said. “We’re all learning it, we all have questions, this new lifestyle, of being a professional, is brand new. We definitely can lean on each other a bit, but we’re definitely wide-eyed a little bit.”
Besides, he said, they’re all part of something bigger now.
“I’m excited to contribute for the team and the Patriots,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more teammates than just four now. I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of my Patriot teammates.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: