Rookie Brenden Schooler (41) covers a kickoff in his second NFL preseason game vs. Carolina. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Seated on the hill overlooking the first of two upper practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, there’s a narrower-than-regulation goal post at the far end of the grid before you.
The space behind it is filled by linemen colliding with blocking sleds. In the foreground, defensive backs run and jump, some tipping balls, others snatching them from thick August air.
As your eyes drift clockwise to the right, from top to bottom of the next field over, running backs high-step pads laid out as a ladder. At the same time, tight ends and receivers sharpen pass routes, trying to stay on course despite body blows from blocking bags swung by coaches.
Closer to an end-zone berm crowded by fans, red-shirted quarterbacks repeat their right-handed throwing motions. One follow-through after another.
Finally, you scan left, focusing on the nearest quadrant and the quietest yet most telling corner of the complex. This is where the small group of Patriots’ specialists honor their crafts, shadowed by summer apprentices.
They include 10-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater, three-time Pro Bowler Justin Bethel and unheralded Cody Davis, who, according to at least one opposing special teams coach, is deserving of similar distinction. These are the exemplars, demonstrating and, if needed, expounding on the coaching points of special teams coordinator Cam Achord and assistant Joe Houston.
For the one, two or few youngsters annually assigned to them for special (teams) instruction, it’s a sign: the organization sees a potential niche role for you on fourth downs. Or, at least, it hopes to discover added value beyond your primary positions.
For those of us watching with September in mind, it’s a tell: which long shots have the best shots of making the Patriots’ regular-season roster?
We’ve seen it before.
With Brandon King in 2015. He joined the Patriots after going undrafted out of Auburn, learned alongside Slater and Nate Ebner, made the practice squad, earned a call-up and played in 73 games, on nearly 1,400 snaps — all but two as a specialist — from 2015-21.
With Jonathan Jones in 2016. Another Auburn alum, he stood out first as a rookie free agent covering kicks and punts for the most part, before earning a primary role in the secondary.
And with Keion Crossen in 2018. He was a seventh-round draftee, picked 243rd overall from Western Carolina, showed up similarly to Jones and remains in the league, now as a Dolphin.
This summer, New England’s veteran specialists have two new understudies — each undrafted. One is a 6-3, 265-pound defensive end who moves like the college running back he once was. The other is a lanky defensive back, easily recognizable because of the long red hair flowing from the back of his silver helmet.
Soon enough in every practice, DaMarcus Mitchell and Brenden Schooler will get reps on defense. But first they report to Achord in the outdoor classroom where the Pats’ playing camp counselors do their thing and dispense their advice.
Mitchell will spend less time here, working on the inside mainly with others like linebacker Harvey Langi, before doing more defensively. Schooler will stick around longer, almost as if stuck to the hips of Slater or Davis, in particular. Much the way Matthew once was to stalwart Larry Izzo.
How Schooler processes and applies his education will likely make the difference between inclusion or exclusion when the practice-field hills are emptied of onlookers, as 53 Pats prepare for their season opener in Miami.
Schooler, who opened training camp as No. 67 before donning No. 41, with DaMarcus Mitchell (97), Cody Davis (22), Joe Cardona (49) and coach Cam Achord. (Photos by Bob Socci)
From the first open practice of training camp to the last, on the final Monday of the preseason in Henderson, Nev., Schooler routinely drills with the core specialists. He steps to their strides, counters their hand fighting and, a self-described “sponge,” absorbs their every word.
“It’s honestly just a true blessing to learn under these guys…Cody and Matt and Justin, those guys are freakin’ ballers on special teams,” Schooler says after a mid-August practice, his burnt-orange hair balled into a bun, his scruffy face lighting up. “I knew who Matthew Slater was when I was a freakin’ freshman in college, ‘This guy’s ballin’ out on special teams.’
“He’s a great leader. All those guys are great leaders and they’re great examples to look up to. They do everything the right way.”
“Any young player that would play their positions would be missing a great opportunity to not pay attention to how those guys play, what they do, their techniques, and talk to them, ask them questions about how they read things, how they see things,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “Our guys do a really good job of that all the way across the board, offense, defense, special teams. You see veteran players working with younger players all the time, trying to help them, especially the ones that want help.
“If guys don’t really want help, it’s not going to go very far. Rookies that ask questions get information and veterans are very good at providing it. In all areas, but certainly in the kicking game. Cody, Justin, Matthew, I mean those guys have seen a lot, they know a lot. They’re a great resource.”
Schooler not only wants the help, he’s smart enough to know he needs it.
True, he played on special teams at Oregon, then, after a brief postgraduate stay at Arizona, in his lone season at Texas. But like every aspect of play — and in some respects more than the others —- what the college kicking game involves is far simpler than what’s required in the NFL.
So when a vet has something to say, the rookie listens. Intently.
“Just sitting in the (meeting) room with them, when they start talking you just put the pen down and just listen to what they have to say, because what they have to say is probably the right thing,” says Schooler, whose decision to sign with the Patriots was influenced by the team’s well-known emphasis on special teams and the pre-draft relationship he formed with Achord and Houston.
“They’ve taught me a lot about leverage and the game, intricacies of special teams and like how complex it can be. In college we didn’t run quite as complex a scheme. Out here you’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s and know where everybody is at all times.”
And up here, those P’s and Q’s move a lot faster.
“It’s hard to replicate game speed out here. That was one of the biggest things they told us, ‘It’s going to be fast,’” Schooler says, a few days after his Aug. 11 debut vs. the Giants. “It was fast. You’re so juiced you don’t even realize it. Speed of the game definitely increased from college to NFL, especially on special teams. Everyone’s fast, big and strong here. You have to have your mental on point, knowing what you’re doing and not taking a bad drop or having bad leverage because you will get exposed. Having all those guys teaching me the ins and outs, where to be, how to do it, has been awesome.”
By paying attention, Schooler attracts it.
“I like him a lot. I mean, obviously, he’s from Southern California, so I like him,” Slater says of a fellow Orange County native, following a recent joint practice with Carolina. “He’s doing a great job of just coming in here and trying to get better every day, and (from) a rookie, that’s all you can ask as veterans. ‘Hey, you come in here, you learn, you get better, you ask questions, you take coaching, you compete at a high level every day and we can work with that. So, it’s been a joy to work with him so far.”
“School’s a smart guy. He does a good job listening, taking the information, processing and then trying to apply it,” Achord explains after Schooler led their unit in preseason snaps. “That’s the biggest thing. When you make a coaching point, you don’t want to make it five, six, seven times. School’s does a good job of (accepting) coaching.
“He’s smart, he can take the coaching, he can apply it, he’s athletic enough to be an effective player.”
After four years at Oregon and a layover at Arizona, Schooler finished his collegiate career at Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
At Oregon, Schooler converted from defensive back to wide receiver. Initially, his position coach was John Neal, who previously helped develop future Patriot Pat Chung as a collegiate safety. Like Chung, Schooler also committed himself in Eugene to the kicking game.
“As a younger guy at the University of Oregon, I had the pleasure of (following) a lot of guys that went to Oregon and the NFL to play, and they’d come back to talk to us about how important special teams is,” he recalled. “Unless you’re like a first, second, maybe third-round draft pick, you’ve got to make the team on special teams.
“I really got my break on special teams, scout special teams my freshman year. That’s when I made it onto the depth chart on special teams and then made my way into the starting lineup. That was the constant throughout college, special teams, playing offense, defense. Yeah, that constant was always special teams and making an emphasis on special teams because you only get one shot, so it’s either going to be a good play or a bad play. Making sure that I’m always on every special teams that I can be on, show these guys at the next level that I can play defense, offense and I can contribute on special teams. It’s always been a huge emphasis for me.”
Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell extend a Patriots’ streak. For the 19th straight year, the team features at least one undrafted free agent on its initial 53-man roster. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Schooler was born into a football family. His father, Tom, is a high school coach, now at St. Michael’s Academy near Austin, Texas. His brother, Colin, is a linebacker training in hopes of his own call from the NFL.
From 2017-19, the Schooler siblings were rivals, meeting three times as Brenden’s Ducks encountered Colin’s Arizona Wildcats. Granted extra eligibility, they became schoolmates briefly, when Brenden enrolled at Arizona in 2020. But when the Pac-12 announced cancellation of its schedule in August due to COVID-19, they separated again. Brenden transferred to Texas, Colin to Texas Tech.
In April, Brenden signed with the Patriots. Four months later, he reflects on his circuitous, five-year journey to Foxborough.
“I was going to try to get out of college in three (years), get out there and make my money, then go back and finish,” Schooler says. “But God had a different plan for me. He put me on a different track, and I ended up meeting a lot of really awesome people along the way. Getting to go to three different schools, I don’t think a lot of guys can say that they did that, and just making connections everywhere I’ve been.
“It’s been awesome. It’s been one hell of a rollercoaster ride, but I enjoyed all the ups, enjoyed all the downs because at the end of the day, it’s gotten me here.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Schooler was one of two rookie free agents to make the Pats’ 53-man roster. Mitchell is the other. A few weeks ago, he shared his emotions after his first game experience inside Gillette Stadium.
“Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream to come out here and play in the NFL and play on the highest stage possible,” Schooler said, eyes brightening. “Coming out, running out of the tunnel for the first time, I just couldn’t help but smile, just looking around, taking it all in.
“Same thing when I ran on the field for the opening kickoff. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m doing it.’ It was like a surreal feeling that I’ll probably never forget.”
Imagine the feeling a week from Sunday in Miami.
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.