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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

Will Yeatman (AP)

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.

“They’re terrific players and they know a lot about the game,” Yeatman said of the group that includes Gronkowski, Hernandez, Butler and Smith. “[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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