Thursday, September 18, 2014

Football or rugby, New England’s Ebner excels

The third-year defensive back continues to make big strides.


September 18, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Except for the occasional “there’s no other quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady” quote, Bill Belichick seldom praises players or offers much when asked about their development.

So it was more than a little surprising to hear him speak so highly about third-year defensive back Nate Ebner earlier in the week.

Nate Ebner never was seen as an NFL player, not while starring on rugby youth teams for the U.S., and certainly not as a walk-on football player at Ohio State. But the Patriots chose him with the 197th pick in 2012 and love his progress.

“I would probably put him in … the top 5 percent all time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL,” said Belichick. “His development has really been outstanding.”

Given that Belichick on Sunday became the sixth coach in NFL history to win 200 regular-season games, that’s high praise.

Given that Ebner had little football experience before the Patriots selected him out of Ohio State with the 197th pick in the 2012 draft, that’s remarkable praise.

The 25-year-old Ebner was a rugby player growing up in Dublin, Ohio, introduced to the sport when he was 12 by his late father, Jeff. And he was really good. When he was 17, Ebner was selected to play in the National 7′s – the youngest player to achieve that accomplishment. He played fly-half – and pretty much anywhere on the back line – for the U.S. U-19 and U-20 rugby teams from 2006-08. He was named the most valuable player of the Rugby World Cup in 2008 while with the U.S. U-20 team.

Football was something he liked to watch, but when he enrolled at Ohio State in 2009, he knew he couldn’t juggle academics and an international rugby career. So he gave up that part of his life and joined Ohio State’s rugby club. Not long after, he talked to his father about walking on to play football for the Buckeyes.

When his father was killed during a robbery of the family’s business, football became Ebner’s release. He combined aggressive play with natural skills – he’s a muscular 6 feet, 210 pounds with speed – and eventually earned a scholarship as a special teams player.
Still, no one could have predicted an NFL career. Except maybe the Patriots.

They tend to find those diamonds in the rough. There’s offensive guard Stephen Neal, an NCAA Division I champion wrestler who won three Super Bowls and played 10 years before shoulder injuries forced his retirement. There’s quarterback Matt Cassel, a perennial backup at Southern Cal who led the Patriots to an 11-5 record in 2008 after Brady suffered a knee injury. Cassel has since started for two other teams.

Taking a world-class rugby player and making him a defensive back? No big deal, right?

Wrong, said Belichick.

“Nate has, I’d say, far exceeded our expectations defensively based on what he had coming out of college,” said Belichick.

Ebner has made his mark as a special teams player – he had the fumble recovery in overtime to set up the winning field goal in last year’s wild 34-31 win over Denver – but he is improving on defense. In 2013, he got just five snaps on defense all season. Sunday, in a 30-7 win over Minnesota, he was on the field for 14 defensive snaps. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it shows the Patriots’ growing confidence in his abilities.

Ebner said he’s just trying to do his best.

“I just think I attribute it to working hard on a day-to-day basis, coming in and buying in,” Ebner said Wednesday. “Taking it day to day and whatever the team needs me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”

Asked if playing rugby has helped him with football, Ebner said some skills cross over but not many.

“Football is football and rugby is rugby,” he said. “Yeah, you tackle people and stuff but at the end of the day they’re two different sports.”

But playing on the national team at a young age provided lessons that helped him make the leap to football.

“Playing eighth grade at the national level, being held to a professional level, prepared me for a future with Ohio State and the Patriots,” he said.

It wasn’t easy to give up rugby, but Ebner believes he made the right choice.

“I am where I am today and I attribute a lot of that to my past and playing rugby,” he said. “But now it’s football time.”

Now in his third year with the Patriots, Ebner believes he has a greater understanding of not only what the team is trying to do on defense but what the opponents are trying to do on offense.

“With anything you do, when you have more repetitions you start to see things quicker,” he said.

He knows he still has a lot to learn but has great belief in his ability.

“If you do everything you can to get better and progress, the rest will take care of itself,” he said.

Those are the lessons he learned from his father. “He was a big factor in everything in my life and he’s a big factor to this day in everything I do on a day-to-day basis,” said Ebner. “The character I try to hold as a man and the work ethic I put forward … whatever I have was learned from him. He definitely still is a big influence.”

Ebner was asked if he missed rugby, especially with the sport returning to the Summer Olympics in 2016.

“My focus is here,” he said. “Rugby was a great part of my life, was a great influence in my life. But at the end of the day I’m here and this is where my focus is … (I’m) not thinking about anything else but this team and what we have this week in the (Oakland) Raiders.”

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