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Mayo Day in April: LB ready to contribute

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The plan was to rake leaves.

Jerod Mayo was determined to help his mother give their yard a good spring-cleaning today. Any other Saturday afternoon, he might have gotten the job done. But after one bag, he was spent.

It was, after all, the first day of the 2008 NFL Draft, and Mayo was anxiously waiting to hear his name called by one of the 32 clubs. He retreated to his porch, sat down, and began thinking.

And then the phone rang. It was Bill Belichick.

"I definitely was surprised," said Mayo, a 6-1, 240-pound linebacker from the University of Tennessee.

Rarely in the Belichick era here in New England has the team drafted a player at his position, let alone in the first round. Yet, Mayo said he had a feeling he might end up with the Patriots, one of 11 teams that hosted him prior to the draft.

"I had a great visit when I came down there. The coaches and I sat down and talked football for a long time … I felt like we clicked."

Given the advanced age of New England's starting linebackers last season, coupled with the relative inexperience of its backups, most draft observers expected the Patriots to select a linebacker in the first round. But many thought it would be Ohio State's Vernon Gholston, who nearly fell right into the Pats' lap at number seven.

However, when their AFC East rivals, the New York Jets, snatched him up one pick earlier, New England traded down to New Orleans' spot at 10. There, they felt that need and value intersected perfectly with Mayo.

"He is a pretty versatile player, did a lot of things down at Tennessee. Played inside, played outside played in sub defense, played in the kicking game," Belichick explained shortly after the pick was announced.

The question now is, where will Mayo fit into the Patriots' 3-4 defensive scheme?

Mayo began his Volunteer career as a weak-side outside 'backer (a.k.a. Will) in 2005, after red-shirting in his freshman year, and has some experience at strong-side (or Sam). But last year, he switched to middle linebacker (a.k.a. Mike). All he did in that capacity was lead the talent-rich Southeast Conference in tackles with 140 – the most by a Tennessee player in nearly two decades.

While playing in the middle may be a relatively new position for Mayo, he's not a complete stranger to the 3-4. Tennessee ran a base 4-3, but had a number of packages that included 3-4 formations.

"I think he played well at Mike and Sam and Will," Belichick observed. "Those are all 4-3 off-the-line positions and in the 3-4 defense we have only two off-the-line positions."

And those two positions just happen to be at inside linebacker. So, Mayo the Patriot most likely will find himself playing there, perhaps on a rotational basis with veterans Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau (if he returns for a 19th season), and the recently signed free agent Victor Hobson.

"Wherever coach wants to put me, that's where I'm willing to play," Mayo declared. "The 3-4 defense, those guys [in New England] put a lot of pressure on offenses and that's the type of defense that I like to play in."

Belichick seems to believe his newest linebacker will be a quick learner of New England's complex system.

"He's very intelligent player, he's a good football player. He understands schemes and concepts, he runs the defense, makes the calls, makes adjustments and all those things. I think that he has a lot to offer."

"I feel the transition won't be a problem," Mayo predicted. "I can't help but to be good as long as I listen and take notes and learn from a great coach and a great coaching staff and great guys like Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi and all those guys. I'm just going to be like a sponge and try to take as much in as possible.

"I want to make a contribution somehow, whether it's on special teams or as a starter," he added. "When people hear contribution, they think, 'Well, this guy is going to come in and get Defensive Rookie of the Year.' That's a goal of mine, but at the same time, you can make a contribution on special teams. That's one-third of the game.

"If that's the case, then that's the case. If I come in and do become a starter … I feel like I can succeed."

Mayo certainly succeeded as a student at Tennessee. He graduated with a degree in sports management; he also minored in business. During their conversations with Mayo, which date back to before the Scouting Combine, the Patriots must have noticed that he's a student of the game, as well.

"Oh, I love watching film," he proclaimed. "I'm always trying to get a competitive edge whether it's in the film room or in the weight room, anywhere. I'm always trying to become a better football player. That's just me."

If there was a concern about Mayo, it may have been his injury history. However, despite having had surgery on both knees during his college career, Belichick isn't concerned about Mayo's health.

"Our doctors feel fine about him. I wish my good knees were as good as his bad ones," Belichick quipped. "I think he is healthy and has been a very durable guy and a very productive player."

During the Combine in Indianapolis, Mayo told reporters that his main goal when he enrolled at the University of Tennessee was to depart with his degree. He achieved that goal. He also indicated that when his playing days are over, he wants to become a coach.

But for now, Mayo's enjoying the moment.

"I'm just excited, man, I just got drafted and I'm just excited. I'm pretty much speechless. I'm just overwhelmed and I'm ready to get to New England and play for a great coach and a great team."

He'll get that chance soon enough. Next weekend, Mayo and the rest of New England's 2008 draft class will gather for rookie mini camp, their first official practice as professionals.

Meaning the leaves will have to wait for another weekend.

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