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Will Yeatman trying to force his way in crowded Patriots’ tight end picture

08.13.11 at 5:35 pm ET

FOXBORO ‘€” The Patriots have a crowded picture at the tight end spot. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez both return after stellar rookie seasons, while practice-squadder Carson Butler also returns and rookie Lee Smith tries to make the most out of limited reps. And that doesn’€™t include the possible return of veteran Alge Crumpler, who was part of the mix last season and could still return in 2011.

But doing his best to stand out is 6-foot-6, 270-pound rookie Will Yeatman. The former collegiate lacrosse star is in camp this summer with the Patriots, trying to land a spot on the 53-man roster as a tight end. The massive Yeatman is tough to miss ‘€” he’€™s every bit as imposing as his fellow tight end Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds).

And Yeatman has certainly made his presence known on the field. In the preseason opener against the Jaguars, running with the No. 2 offense, he had a pair of impressive run blocks and caught a pair of tough passes thrown his way for 14 total yards. (He was targeted three times overall.)

“Right now, it’€™s honestly been a big growing experience. A big learning experience. There are some wonderful coaches here and I’€™m learning a lot,” Yeatman said.

“I don’€™t know if there have been many surprises. I’€™d say it’€™s just been a big growing experience for me. I’€™ve got to learn the playbook as fast as I can and that’€™s been something that I have to continue to grow at. Other than that, just the overall physicality and talent of the players out here has been great.”

The 23-year-old Yeatman, who was born in Naples, Italy, hasn’€™t taken a traditional route to the NFL ‘€” he didn’€™t play much college football. Instead, a highly touted high school lacrosse star, he transferred from Notre Dame to Maryland. (The process may have been accelerated by a some scrapes with the law, including a suspension for an arrest in 2008.)

While with the Terps, Yeatman did play some football, but really made his bones as a lacrosse star ‘€” he was a former All-American who was part of the U.S. National Team tryout pool selection team in 2010. He likely landed on Bill Belichick‘€™s radar screen because of Belichick’€™s well-known love of lacrosse, as well as the Yeatman’€™s connections to Notre Dame. (He was with the Irish when former Belichick lieutenant Charlie Weis was the head coach at Notre Dame.)

“Obviously, I know that he has a lacrosse background,” Yeatman said of Belichick, who was spotted playing lacrosse on the Gillette Stadium turf last November after a win over Indianapolis. “But right now, it’€™s really been just about football, and that’€™s the extent of our relationship.”

While he does have some college football experience, he has been able to use the skill set he acquired as a lacrosse player on the football field this summer in Foxboro.

“Definitely. The endurance side of lacrosse is a huge help,” said Yeatman, who was signed as a rookie free agent last month. “Then, just the movement you have in lacrosse helps you out a terrific amount ‘€” the route running in football, and both sports correlate wonderfully. Right now, I’€™m just trying to be the best football player I can be.”

The Patriots are well stocked at tight end, and so realistically, Yeatman’€™s best chance to make the roster in 2011 might be on the practice squad, where he would take a season to essentially redshirt, learn the game and look toward 2012. However, New England has done well with long shot, off-the-radar prospects before ‘€” after all, this was the franchise that turned a collegiate wrestling champion (Stephen Neal) into one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league.

While Yeatman is aware of the challenge that lies ahead, he’€™s happy to be in the company of New England’€™s tight end crew.

‘€œThey’€™re terrific players and they know a lot about the game,’€ Yeatman said of the group that includes Gronkowski, Hernandez, Butler and Smith. ‘€œ[Tight ends] coach [Brian] Ferentz knows an unbelievable amount about the game, as do all the coaches on the staff. I’€™ve learned a lot, I’€™m continuing to learn, and right now I’€™m just trying to get better any way I can.’€

Read More: 2011 training camp, Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler, Bill Belichick



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