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Patriots hoped Nate Ebner would thrive in ‘organized chaos’

Five seasons in, Nate Ebner is tied for the NFL lead in special-teams tackles.

Nate Ebner’s story is one of transition.

In that respect, he’s not unlike the kicking game itself.

At 17, the Dublin, Ohio native was the youngest to ever play on the United States rugby sevens national team. Following the sport that bonded him with his late father, Jeff, he was named MVP of team USA during the under-19 IRB Junior World Championship in 2007 as well as the under-20 IRB Junior World Championship in 2008.

But as a junior at Ohio State in 2009, Ebner tried his hand at something else. Something he hadn’t played collegiately, never mind at Hilliard Davidson High School.


Ebner walked onto the Buckeyes program that fall, and proceeded to log only a handful of snaps on the defensive side of the ball through the 2011 season. But the 6-foot, 205-pounder, officially listed as a safety on Urban Meyer’s depth chart, would log high marks elsewhere on the field.

By his final run downfield at Ohio State, Ebner had earned a football scholarship on the way to finishing with 30 tackles and one sack in 36 career games. He’d also collected the Bo Rein Award as the team’s most inspirational player and the Ike Kelley Award as the team’s top special-teams player.

That type of resume, even in the third phase, garnered the attention of at least one NFL suitor. Perhaps the good word from then-Buckeyes assistant Mike Vrabel factored in. Perhaps Meyer’s connection also did.

Perhaps it took more than that.

With or without a strong recommendation, Ebner was a standout on special teams in the Big Ten. The New England Patriots saw enough out of that sample size to believe he could be one in the NFL as well.

“Well, I’d say in his case, it was the thought,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday on WEEI’s Dale & Holley with Rich Keefe.

After a pro day in which he clocked a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, a 6.59-second three-cone, a 39-inch vertical and 10-foot-8 broad jump to go with 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, Ebner’s name crossed the bottom line at No. 197 overall that April.

It wasn’t necessarily based on the projection that he’d develop into a future starter in the secondary.

“Nate didn’t play defensively at Ohio State, and we drafted him in the sixth round, right? So, if we didn’t think he was going to be a good special-teams player we should have signed him as a free agent,” Belichick said. “We thought he would be a good special-teams player.”

Ebner’s rugby-to-football path has since become his own. He’s established his place in the blueprint as New England’s personal punt protector among several other job titles. And now, after re-signing on a two-year deal in March, he finds himself in the midst of his most significant season in Foxborough.

The 28-year-old is tied for the league lead with 16 special-teams tackles through 14 contests. He has also a forced a fumble over the course of his team-high 298 snaps in the kicking game.

But hits on returners have been only part of it.

“Nate’s really – not only has he had a lot of production this year, but he’s also taken a lot of leadership in the group, particularly on the punt team, making the calls,” Belichick said, adding, “He’s been in a way like [Matthew] Slater – very productive on the field but also shown a lot of leadership and communication to help the other players handle that.”

Ebner does not yet carry the marks of a six-time captain, a five-time Pro Bowler or a three-time first-team All-Pro like Slater. No. 43 is still awaiting his first Pro Bowl honor. But despite missing all of offseason workouts and the majority of August while in training and in competition as the first active NFL player to participate in the Summer Olympics, he, too, has become integral.

The way Ebner approached his absence is as much of as reason as any. It’s the same way he approached the conversion to football some eight years ago.

“I’d say the thing about this year that has been really special about Nate is that, first of all, he wasn’t here at all in the spring, he wasn’t here for the majority of training camp,” Belichick said. “But when he got here, he attacked his job and his role on the team with a great deal of urgency. He felt that he had fallen behind. He had a great experience at the Olympics. It’s something he wanted to do. It’s something he and I had talked about. I was 100 percent behind him. Our team was 100 percent behind him doing that. But once that was over and he shifted his gears and his attention to our football team, he had just a tremendous urgency to, in his mind, make up the ground he was behind on from the Olympic experience and he has worked very hard and was very dedicated to making that up.”

Not all players are cut from that cloth. Not all players are cut out for identifying, conveying, blocking, chasing and tackling all in one fluid transition, or maintaining an assignment 60 yards downfield in a flood of 22.

Five campaigns and more than 70 games in, Ebner has continued to prove that he is.

“I’ve always personally looked at special teams as organized chaos,” Belichick said. “When the ball is kicked, everybody’s running all over the place. It doesn’t always look like there’s any rhyme or reason or plan to what they’re all doing – there really is. There are guidelines, there are certain fundamental rules or principles that you put in place. But every play is different, every kick is different, all the leverage points and so forth change very quickly on that play. Plus, when you start getting into wind and game situations and so forth, there can be a lot of multiples.

“But you have a core set of fundamentals that you work from, and then from there, certain players are more instinctive, they’re more able to anticipate or react to things a little quicker than others,” he noted. “And that, along with their talent, can make them very good, very productive in that phase of the game.”

That is what the Patriots had hoped for.