FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots’ recent ties to the Rutgers football program are so deep that owner Robert Kraft even joked recently that the team may have to set up a recruiting center on the New Brunswick, N.J., campus.
Bill Belichick‘s infatuation with Rutgers players has been well documented over the past few seasons. The love affair began when the Patriots took Devin McCourty with their first-round pick in 2010, and it finally came to a head during this year’s NFL draft with the selection of three Scarlet Knight players, and the undrafted addition of a fourth.
But just as the relationship between the two programs appears to be growing deeper, the direction of the college football winds may be moving the Patriots’ operation just a tad farther south — down into Happy Valley, Penn.
Belichick’s love affair with the Rutgers’ program initially stemmed from his close relationship with former Rutgers and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano. Much like Belichick, Schiano recruited and coached players with great character, intelligence and commitment to football, making the transition into the Patriots’ system nice and smooth.
Belichick even expanded upon the connection after the final day of the 2013 NFL draft.
“I’d say the players he recruits and the program he runs is in a lot of ways similar to what we do,” Belichick said. “So the fact that he’s recruited those kids four to five years ahead of when they come into this league and they’ve been in a program that’s, in a lot of ways, probably similar to ours, then it’s probably not that surprising that we would like some of the kids he’s produced, both talent-wise and total makeup.”
But now, with Schiano gone at Rutgers, Bill O’Brien and Penn State seem primed to be the Patriots’ new feeder program.
O’Brien spent five seasons coaching in New England, ascending up to the role of offensive coordinator in 2011 and becoming one of Belichick’s most-trusted advisors. He, too, preaches many of Belichick’s core principles and has already begun building the Penn State program around them. So, the Patriots’ future connections in Happy Valley are obvious and, in fact, have already begun.
While the Rutgers’ storyline got all the attention, the Patriots quietly signed two undrafted Penn State players to their roster to consummate the new relationship. The two are center Matt Stankiewitch (pronounced “Stank-ev-itch”) and cornerback Stephon Morris, both of whom were very productive with the Nittany Lions, but are long shots to make the Patriots’ final 53-man roster.
Even with that long -shot tagline, Morris admitted that he bypassed other teams in favor of the Patriots under O’Brien’s guidance.
“O’Brien pretty much led me here,” Morris revealed during last weekend’s rookie minicamp. “I had other opportunities, but even before the draft I wanted to become a Patriot. Talking to coach O’Brien, it felt like this was the best place for me to be. Just when I came here, I just felt like it’s a great tradition and I’m very proud of it.”
As an undersized (5-foot-8) defensive back, Morris is at something of a disadvantage in his battle for a roster spot, but he still joined the Patriots anyway. Stankiewitch, conversely, has a huge advantage in his attempt to make the team, given his experience in O’Brien’s pro-style — or should we say Patriots style — offense last season. His comfort level with the system, along with some prodding from O’Brien, led him to New England, too.
“I felt comfortable with the coaches,” Stankiewitch said of his decision. “I felt comfortable with the situation, and I felt comfortable with the whole system — the whole New England Patriots’ atmosphere, the way they conduct themselves and the way they want you to be a football player.”
Much like with Schiano’s players at Rutgers, O’Brien is growing more than just individual football players. He’s building young athletes into mature young men, and Belichick has taken notice.
Signing two undrafted free agents doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend. By week 1, the names Morris and Stankiewitch may even be long forgotten, erasing all remnants of Nittany Lion blue from the Patriots’ locker room. But these two players are just the start of a long and promising relationship.
No, the Patriots won’t only be pulling from the Penn State pool. Belichick still has strong ties elsewhere around college football, including with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, and they seem to be as strong as ever. It might take a few years before the Patriots draft a Penn State player and there might even be a few final strings in the Rutgers’ program. Schiano’s final recruiting class has two more years before graduation and it will be at least another two before any of O’Brien’s recruits are even eligible for the draft. But, eventually, it will happen.
Sooner or later, Rutgers will become a fad of the past for the Patriots, and they’ll no doubt be looking for a new grooming partner to work with. Just don’t be surprised if they’ve already found it, or if it just happens to be Penn State.