Monday, April 30, 2012

A Special Journey for Nate Ebner Continues with the Patriots

By Christopher Price

April 29, 2012

FOXBORO — The Patriots have signed former wrestlers and lacrosse players. So when New England selected Ohio State safety Nate Ebner in the sixth round (197th overall) of the NFL draft on Saturday, it should come as no surprise. After all, before Ebner started playing football, he was considered one of the best teenage rugby players in America.

Of course, there are some connections between rugby and football. A few, anyway.

“It compares in the fact that we hit each other and there’s a lot of running and some big dudes,” Ebner said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday shortly after the Patriots picked him. “I don’t know that it compares a lot. I’d say just the speed of the game and the tackling are similar.

“They’re very different sports. I guess the fact that when it’s time to come down and hit somebody as I’m running down on kickoff, I’d say that’s very similar to the time it comes down you’re in a rugby game and you have to hit someone. The tackling, I guess, is similar.”

Ebner joined the Buckeyes as a walk-on in 2009 after an impressive career as a rugby player — playing on the under-19 and under-20 U.S. national rugby teams, he was named MVP of those teams in the 2007 and 2008 world rugby tournaments, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

With the Buckeyes, he played sparingly on defense, but eventually landed a scholarship and became a key component of Ohio State’s special teams unit. He had 11 tackles as a senior, as well as a sack. He popped up on radar screens with an impressive Pro Day, where he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash, finished with 23 reps on the bench press, showed off a 39-inch vertical and impressed everyone with a 6.59 3-cone time.

“Nate is a guy that is a big, fast safety that has been very productive in the kicking game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “[He’s a] relatively inexperienced player that we think has a lot of good football in front of him.

“Of course, we have some good connections at Ohio State, people that have worked with him that obviously that played a part in it too, just in terms of his overall development and where we think he can be.”

It’s clear that Ebner the football player has a gonzo side that was sparked by Ebner the rugby player. That’s evident when he talks about his favorite part of special teams.

“I would have to say kickoff, probably because … I don’t know why. I don’t know,” said the 6-foot, 202-pounder. “I just enjoy running down as fast as you can, and you know, it’s just mayhem, it’s exciting, it’s crazy, it’s such a rush, I don’t even know what to say about it. It happens so fast, it’s just one big blur and then it’s over. I just love it for some reason — I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a screw loose.”

Ebner said that his first contact with the Patriots was with defensive assistant coach Brian Flores, who works with special teams coach Scott O’Brien. After some contact with the Patriots both before and after his Pro Day, he also got some sense from former Patriots linebacker and current Ohio State assistant Mike Vrabel that his skills as a special teamer could land him a spot in the NFL.

“He highly stressed it. He understand that it’s an important part of the game as anything else,” Ebner said. “He really made it clear to me the things you do every day at Ohio State you can play in the NFL for years. He knew the importance of special teams. We tried to spread that throughout the team.”

“I can’t say enough about coach Mike Vrabel,” he added. “Obviously, what he did as a player, but even as a coach I learned so much from him. That’s not even to say the type of person he is. I mean, what an amazing guy. I can’t thank him enough for the help he’s given me and the attention he’s given me.”

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