There's no denying that Bill Belichick has had a soft spot in his heart for certain college programs. There was Fresno State when his former assistant Pat Hill was head coach there. Then the University of Florida under Urban Meyer.
Now, Rutgers is clearly the latest "it" school for Belichick. He now has six players on the roster who hail from the State University of New Jersey, with co-captain Devin McCourty, second-year player Justin Francis (who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season), and four rookies this year.
Belichick drafted three players last month - Ryan, safety Duron Harmon, and linebacker Steve Beauharnais – then added cornerback Brandon Jones as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Having teammates from college on your first pro roster is certainly a help in adjusting to the NFL world, and this group is even more fortunate to have McCourty, with whom they played as Rutgers freshmen, as a veteran to whom they can turn for guidance.
"Our relationship's grown over the years," Ryan explained. "He moved on to the NFL when I was in college, and now I'm here, so, it's like we're starting all over again with the freshman and captain relationship. But we're all professionals. He's a great Patriot, and now I'm trying to be a great Patriot."
"I talk to him all the time. We're very close friends," Jones said of McCourty. "I lived with him when I was at school for a summer. He's just a great person.
"It's always good to see familiar faces. I told Duron this morning, 'It's good to see you.' We were in the training room together. It's still a tough transition because it's so demanding, but I think with these guys, it'll help a little bit."
The Rutgers rookies have to remind themselves, though, that they also need to make acquaintances with their other new teammates now as well.
"I'm so comfortable with Log, Brandon Jones, Steve Beauharnais. We have to branch ourselves out to let people know that we're not shutting them out at all but that we're just very close to each other," noted Harmon. "I'm hoping I can get close to Josh Boyce and Dobson the same way I am with Brandon Jones and Logan Ryan."
Rutgers also just so happens to be the school where Belichick's son Steve, now part of the Patriots coaching staff, was a lacrosse player and walk-on long snapper for a time and was teammates with this group of rookies.
"We had a good friendship. With the B letters in our last name, our lockers were next to each other," Beauharnais recalled. "He's a good guy, knows a lot about football. I've talked to him, said hello, since I've been up here, but haven't had a full conversation with him."
No doubt, that will change soon enough.
Just happy to be here…
Most of the rookies in camp are singing the same tune this weekend – one of gratitude.
"I'm excited to get a shot at this great organization. They have great coaches up here. I'm looking forward to working really hard," said fullback Ben Bartholomew, an undrafted rookie free agent who seemed to have a perpetual smile on his face while talking with reporters.
"There's a lot of good players here," he added. "I'm looking forward to competing with them and working as hard as I can to earn a spot."
"It's a great opportunity," said one of New England's seven draft choices, defensive lineman Michael Buchanan. "I think [rookie mini-camp] provides a lot of competition and I think it forces everybody to work hard and take every day seriously."
"I don't think it's quite hit me. I think it'll hit me when I play a game," admitted Boyce, the only player who couldn't take part in practices, as noted earlier. "I'm glad I'm here, though."
Fellow wide receiver T.J. Moe, an undrafted free agent, was asked to share his thoughts on being compared to Wes Welker, another undrafted player who wound up having enormous success here in New England.
"That's an honor to be compared to a great player… I'm not there yet," Moe cautioned. "I'm worried about trying to make the Patriots roster and trying to do everything they ask me to do ... I'll leave the comparisons up to you guys."
The soon-to-be 26-year-old Vega (his birthday is May 30), the Brockton native who played collegiately at Northeastern, is the oldest player in this year's rookie camp, after having spent the last couple of seasons in Canada. He's more focused on the opportunity, though, rather than where it's taking place.
"It's a professional sport. I happen to be playing where I'm from, he stated. "It's nice to be here. It's the NFL. Truly it's just having an opportunity, for me."
Patriots rookie mini-camp has concluded, with the same 33 players taking part Saturday as they did on Friday. The only player unable to suit up again was wide receiver Josh Boyce, who's on the mend from a broken toe. The next opportunity for Patriots rookies to take the field will be at Organized Team Activities later this month.