FOXBOROUGH -- Ryan O'Callaghan is a fast learner. Yet to make his NFL debut, he's already a bona fide member of the Bill Belichick secret society.
Asked if he could confirm the obvious -- that he'll be starting at right tackle Sunday when the Patriots host the Buffalo Bills in the season opener -- the 6-foot-7-inch, 330-pound breathing mountain looked like the kid hiding in the back of the class lest he be called on to answer a question.
``I haven't been told that," he recited. ``Saturday they'll tell us who's dressing. Ask Coach."
Coach, of course, is as likely to reveal personnel tidbits before the league pries them out of him as he is to scalp his Bon Jovi tickets. But if O'Callaghan isn't starting Sunday, the Patriots probably will be using 10 men on offense. And if he isn't suiting up, they have an invisible man stashed somewhere on the roster.
But strategic silence is all part of rookie protocol, which O'Callaghan encapsulates thusly: ``Your job is not to step on anyone's toes."
That also will be proper etiquette on the field Sunday. And regardless of his circumspect inclinations, he'll be starting. He has for the past three exhibition games, and has performed admirably. Besides, the only other candidate, Nick Kaczur, is still regaining full strength after suffering a shoulder injury. So whether he knows it or not (wink, wink), when O'Callaghan first dons an NFL uniform for a regular-season game, not much will be expected of him other than to protect the most valuable property in franchise history, Tom Brady.
``It's an honor," he said, pretending to be a starter.
It's not an upset, manpower situations aside. On the surface, O'Callaghan is something of a long shot, considering his lowly draft position in the fifth round, the 136th player chosen overall. But he was a bargain at that spot. Naturally, all teams claim they're shocked -- shocked! -- to get a player in the position they do, inflating the player's value and their acumen. But for once, this isn't self-serving rhetoric.
The upset was that O'Callaghan went so late, although true to form, he discounts any disappointment.
``I'm feeling good now," he said. ``That's what matters. [The draft is] in the past."
And O'Callaghan is an integral part of the Patriots' present. Other than memorizing company policy, he has mastered an accelerated program in learning the club's system, at least sufficiently for Belichick to entrust him with the No. 1 job. In that role, he's merely reflecting his college pedigree.
At the University of California, O'Callaghan blocked just about everything except the Free Speech Movement, which survives in Berkeley four decades after its heyday, and to which O'Callaghan obviously didn't belong. He was a Pacific-10 all-star as a junior and senior, and after his final season, he received the Morris Trophy as the conference's outstanding offensive lineman. That award carries a special cachet because its selectors are the Pac-10's defensive linemen.
In addition, O'Callaghan was accorded a couple of unofficial distinctions. He was chosen for the All-American Dream Team by The NFL Draft Report and rated the best college right tackle by The Poor Man's Guide to the NFL Draft. Considering that he lasted until the second day, those imprimaturs are an indictment of either the NFL draft or NFL draft literature.
O'Callaghan validated the latter with his preseason showing, when he applied his lessons in record time.
``I had a few problems at first," he said. ``But in the minicamps and training camp, things started to get easier."
Things will get considerably harder when the action is for real, because more than any other unit, the offensive line must operate in synchronicity, like a chorus of ballet dancers. Sumo ballet dancers, anyway.
``You have to do the right thing," said O'Callaghan. ``You want to know what the guy next to you is doing."
It's about the only instance in which you'll find O'Callaghan minding someone else's business.
The Patriots signed quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan to the practice squad. O'Sullivan, 27, was drafted by the Saints in 2002 out of Cal-Davis. He has also been in the Packers, Bears, and Vikings organizations, and has played in one NFL game, for Green Bay in 2004. The practice squad roster is now filled at eight.