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Brandon Spikes wants to be ‘a better man’ while Jermaine Cunningham wants to be better period

08.01.11 at 12:44 pm ET
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FOXBORO — They came out of the University of Florida together with great expectations from themselves and the Patriots. They helped Urban Meyer lead the Gators to the 2007 and 2009 BCS national titles. And on Sunday, on the practice field, there they were talking to reporters next to the ramp leading to the Patriots locker room.

The Patriots drafted the combo of linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham with the hopes of rejuvenating their pass rush with two of the most promising defensive impact players in the 2010 NFL Draft.

But both Spikes and Cunningham – as you might expect from young players trying to adjust to the “Patriot Way” under Bill Belichick – had their growing pains.

Spikes was suspended four games for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy at a crucial time of the season for him and the team. Prior to the Week 14 game with the Bears, Spikes was tagged for a violation of the NFL’s banned substances policy, reportedly for an ingredient in his ADHD medication.

“I’€™ve been contacted by the NFL and informed that I will be suspended four games for the detection of an illegal substance in a drug test,” Spikes said in a statement before beginning a four-game suspension that would end his season. “The substance was a medication that I should have gotten clarification on before taking. It was not a performance enhancer or an illegal drug. The integrity of the game is very important to me. I understand the league’€™s ruling and apologize to my teammates, the fans and the Patriots organization for this mistake.’€

With a fresh start for 2011, Spikes admitted on Sunday at training camp that the penalty from late in the season stunted his development somewhat in 2010.

“A lot, I think a lot,” Spikes said. “I just want to learn from that and be a better man. Don’t do the same thing twice and just try to get better as a man and as a player.”

He finished his rookie season with 61 tackles, one interception, and three passes defensed. Spikes started eight of the 12 games he played, an impressive number for a rookie in Belichick’s defense. So, Spikes is taking this time to work on his own game as he would an opponent during the season.

“Just attacking my weaknesses pretty much,” Spikes said. “All the stuff I need in improvement in, I’m just trying to focus on that. I’m looking forward to the season, definitely.”

Spikes, a two-time All-American at Florida, became a stud inside linebacker in Belichick’s 3-4 scheme. Now, he needs to learn how that might change with the likely use of more 4-3 looks this season.

For Jermaine Cunningham, the improvement needed is much more subtle.

Like Spikes, Cunningham showed big-time talent right out of the gate. The 2010 second round pick (53rd overall) made his first career start in the third game of the season against Buffalo, supplanting Tully Banta-Cain on the outside as a pass-rushing linebacker.

He recorded his first career sack in Week 6 against the Ravens. Cunningham started 11 of 16 games played as a rookie, finishing with 27 tackles, one sack, and two forced fumbles.

“That’s my goal coming into every season since college, just keep getting better,” Cunningham said Sunday. “I feel like that’s my job right now and that’s what I’m going to do. Just keep working hard, keep getting better. I feel real good.”

And now with the injured Banta-Cain released and the Patriots leaning toward more of a 4-3 look, there will be more chances – and eyes on – Cunningham. But on Sunday, he downplayed any possible need to make major adjustments.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Cunningham explained. “We’re just starting up our defense and we’re just doing the same thing, going out there and playing defense. With a great coach like Bill, it always helps. On the second year coming up, looking forward to it.

“I wouldn’t say just one person. I just try to absorb from everybody and just be like a sponge.”

Read More: 2011 training camp, Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, Florida Gators
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