FOXBOROUGH -- Mark Brady let out a Texas-sized laugh at the question. The longtime DeSoto (Texas) High assistant football coach and head track coach couldn't believe someone was asking him whether second-year Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs had been a leader during his days at the school.
"He was a little guy, but he was always a leader," said Brady, who coached Hobbs in track and football. "I remember he was on the track team and he was a sophomore and Tatum Bell, who is now with the Denver Broncos, was a senior or a junior and he didn't want Ellis to run on the relay. Ellis had to throw down the gloves and say, 'C'mon.' He's always been a great example and leader."
With the emotional and vocal leader of the Patriots' secondary, safety Rodney Harrison, out for the foreseeable future with a broken scapula in his right shoulder, the fiery and fearless Hobbs might have to take on a greater leadership role.
The 23-year-old Hobbs, who has been credited with 22 tackles and one interception this season in seven games, has a history of stepping up.
He did it last season as a rookie making his first NFL start, recording a team-high eight tackles, two fumble recoveries, and an interception in a 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins, which he preserved by defending two fade routes in the end zone with less than a minute remaining. He did it at Iowa State, when as a senior he sealed an Independence Bowl victory over Miami (Ohio) University with an interception in the final minute. He did it last spring, when DeSoto High needed someone to sponsor its annual track meet, after Coca-Cola dropped the sponsorship.
"Now, we have the Ellis Hobbs Invitational," said Brady. "I was looking, asking everyone. I talked to Ellis's mom and bam, no hesitation."
The vociferous Hobbs did hesitate a bit when asked if he would try to become more vocal with Harrison on the shelf.
"Nah, I just do what I do," said Hobbs. "I let performance take care of itself. I'm not going to sit here -- I mean, we're all grown men . . . Nobody is winning prom king out here. You're not getting any cool points for yelling just that much more. If it's needed, then say it."
The 5-foot-9-inch 190-pounder already set an example this year, when he missed just one game, a 38-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Oct. 1, after having surgery to repair a broken scaphoid (the same bone Tedy Bruschi broke during training camp) in his left wrist Sept. 27. After watching the Patriots handle the Bengals from his couch, Hobbs decided he could handle playing with one good arm better than he could playing spectator.
"It makes you really appreciative," said Hobbs, who said the last time he had missed a game was during his sophomore year at DeSoto, when he broke his collarbone. "I know what it feels like to have a day off and have to sit down. I don't care if you're sore or you're hurt or whatever. You're still blessed to be out here.
"I appreciate every day because this is fun to me, regardless of whether I'm taking criticism or I'm having the game of my life. This is what I do, man, and this is what I love doing."
The injury cost Hobbs his starting job, as Chad Scott has started the last five games at left corner, but with Harrison out and fellow safety Eugene Wilson nursing a hamstring that has caused him to miss four games, Scott will likely move to safety, like he did against Indianapolis.
It was at this point last year -- entering the ninth game of the season -- that Hobbs took advantage of an injury to corner Duane Starks (thigh) to stake a starting spot. The Patriots placed Starks on injured reserve, ending his season. After entering the lineup against Miami, Hobbs held on to the job the rest of the way and ended up tied with Asante Samuel for the team lead in interceptions with three.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Hobbs has come a long way since the halfway mark of last year.
"I think Ellis has a lot better understanding of our overall defensive system," said Belichick. "I think last year coming from college, that from a coverage standpoint, our techniques and our coverages and our adjustments . . . and those types of things, there was certainly a learning process, like there is for any player in the passing game, no matter which side of the ball he's on."
Belichick said that Hobbs also had to adjust to the talent of receivers such as Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts, whom he locked up with last week, and Laveranues Coles of the New York Jets, whom he will see Sunday.
Hobbs played to mixed reviews against the Colts' Harrison last week in a 27-20 loss, making a few nice plays, but also ending up on Harrison's Hall of Fame highlight reel, when the Indianapolis star made a breathtaking, bobbling touchdown catch on him.
Hobbs called Harrison the toughest receiver he's ever had to cover, but just like during the game when he jawed at Peyton Manning's favorite target every chance he got, he wasn't ready to back down.
"He did his job on that play. I did my job on the others. It just happens like that," said Hobbs. "This is the NFL. Plays are going to be made, that's why we're here."
Maybe that's why Hobbs chafed at suggestions that the loss of the Patriots' Harrison will cripple the secondary. At one point, after he'd been asked the question for about the fifth time, he just walked away in disgust.
"We don't have time to worry about those things because the second you start worrying about those things is when they start hitting you over the head with bombs," said Hobbs. "Now, you're not making your plays and you're sitting on the bench. I wish the best for everybody that gets hurt, just like everyone was wishing the best for me, but we have to move on."
Spoken like a true Patriot.
Still, Belichick was hesitant to endorse Hobbs as the secondary's new leader. When asked about the corner's leadership capabilities, the Patriots coach responded with a non sequitur that praised Hobbs's toughness, competitiveness, and ability to be a team player.
But that's never stopped Hobbs from stepping up in the past. "That's kind of how he is," said Brady.
"Not the one you'd expect to be a leader, but the one that is."