FOXBORO, Mass. — “Football.”
That was Bill Belichick’s simple assessment of what New England Patriots safety-turned-Olympic rugby star Nate Ebner needs to work on as he prepares to return to the gridiron.
“Not training, football,” the Patriots coach said before Sunday’s training camp practice. “He hasn’t played football. You can go out there and run around a track all you want, but you put 21 other guys out there, and it’s a whole different ballgame. You can’t train for that. You have to have him out there.”
Ebner, who was granted a leave of absence from the Patriots in March to pursue his Olympic dream, has not strapped on football pads since the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 24.
“It’s not his fault,” Belichick said. “It’s not anybody’s fault. It just is what it is. He just hasn’t played football coming up on nine months, eight-plus months, whatever it is.”
The Patriots on Sunday released offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson — a move Belichick confirmed was made to make room for Ebner. The special teams ace wasn’t present at Sunday’s practice, but Kerbyson’s release indicates Ebner likely will be back on the field sooner rather than later.
“He’s got a long way to go,” Belichick said, “but nobody will work harder at it than he will.”
Having Ebner back in the fold should help shore up New England’s punt coverage, which was abysmal in Thursday’s preseason-opening win over the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. The Saints averaged 15.6 yards per return on seven Patriots punts, including a 48-yard runback by Marcus Murphy to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown.
Belichick was harsh Sunday in his criticism of the punt team’s performance, saying it “wasn’t good at all.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time on it,” the coach said. “I hope we can do it better. We’ve just got to do a better job of it. I don’t think it’s a big mystery about what we need to do. We’ve practiced it. We just didn’t do it very well. We’ve obviously got to coach it better, got to execute it better. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that.”
Ebner played 75 percent of special teams snaps last season, the most of any Patriots player. He saw action in four of the United States’ five rugby matches in Rio, scoring two tries.
Thumbnail photo via Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports Images