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Dane Fletcher calls the shots as Pats take preseason opener

08.11.11 at 11:58 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The preseason is a time for players to grow, and as the Patriots opened their exhibition schedule Thursday at Gillette, one player’s growth over the course of a year had been made clear.

After a kick from Chris Koepplin went out of the end zone and set the Jaguars up at the 20-yard-line, the Patriots defense, minus most of its starters, took the field. Coming out with a four-man front, the Patriots outside linebackers linebackers consisted of Rob Ninkovich and Gary Guyton. In the middle calling the plays stood second-year linebacker Dane Fletcher, who originally came to the team as an undrafted free agent defensive end out of Montana State in 2010.

Fletcher, who joins Tedy Bruschi in the unusual club of defensive end-to-inside-linebacker converts (college defensive ends generally remain at the position or transition to outside linebacker upon reaching the NFL), didn’t disappoint in his start Thursday. He came through with five tackles (two for a loss and four of which were of the solo variety) and made Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert‘s night tougher than it had to be.

Calling plays isn’t something Fletcher can expect to do a ton of once the regular season rolls around, but he was encouraged by how the defense played in the team’s 47-12 win.

Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher was the defensive signal caller on Thursday. (AP)

“It felt a little slow and sluggish at first, which isn’t really acceptable,” Fletcher said. “Once we kind of got going on the second drive and kept going, I felt like our defense kind of united again, and felt comfortable with each other and started playing kind of our game. We definitely have a lot to improve on, but that’s what the first game is all about.”

Fletcher had 23 tackles in his rookie season to go with two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception (he picked Ryan Fitzpatrick in the Pats’ 39-3 rout of the Bills in Week 15), and he hopes to take a bigger step in his second year. He’s certainly comfortable in either a 3-4 or a 4-3, though his experience in a 4-3 featured him playing with his hand down in college.

At any rate, Fletcher feels he’s been able to learn from his first season to the point where he can make bigger contributions. He doesn’t think much about how far he’s come as an undrafted free agent — just that he is where he is, regardless of how hard it was to get there.

“You know, I’m a year into the NFL now, and I kind of feel like I’m kind of comfortable with my surroundings,” Fletcher said, “so if there’s a time to speak up and find a role for me, this is it. That’s all I’m trying to do and just fit in wherever the coaches need me.”

Though he has plenty of competition among his fellow linebackers, Fletcher also has had good people to learn from. Led by All-Pro Jerod Mayo, the Pats’ collection of linebackers is both constructive and supportive, and it’s something Fletcher appreciates.

“I feel like our defense does a real good job of helping each other,” Fletcher said. “If one guy needs a little of this, nobody has a problem stepping up and being like, ‘Hey man, help me out with this or that.’ I wouldn’t say it’s one individual guy, but as a unit, we help each other out pretty good.”

It will be interesting to see how much time Fletcher gets once all the big names take the field, but he showed against a rookie quarterback Thursday that he can make the most of it.

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