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He's caught on the hard way

Patriots' Welker overcame big odds

Those who like to root for the underdog are probably going to like new Patriots receiver Wes Welker.

Welker's Rudy-like story traces to Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City, where despite starring as a running back and defensive back, no big-time colleges offered scholarships. Welker's only offer came after signing day, from Texas Tech.

"We had a guy drop out and the scholarship would have just been laying around," Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said yesterday. "No one else offered him. Some places wouldn't even let him walk on."

Leach's expectations were naturally low for Welker. Then, when the team gathered for the first time in that 2000 season, Welker stood out for all the wrong reasons.

"You have all these specimens standing around him, with cut physiques, and there is this short guy with the barrel chest and thick ankles who was slow," Leach said. "He's there thinking he could take them all on. And the son of a gun could."

Welker went on to play in 50 games for Texas Tech over four seasons, leaving school as the NCAA career record-holder for punt return yards (1,761), while catching 259 passes in the team's wide-open offense.

But despite his accomplishments, Welker wasn't on the radar of most NFL teams, likely because of his lack of size and Texas Tech's unorthodox scheme. He entered the league as a rookie free agent with the Chargers, made the roster, appeared in one game, then was cut. The Dolphins scooped him up the next week and he was used mostly as a special teams player the rest of that season.

So what is it about the 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound Welker that led the Patriots to acquire him for two draft picks, and then hand him a five-year, $18.1 million contract this week?

Probably the same things Leach began to appreciate as Welker emerged from also-ran scholarship player to Texas Tech star.

"It happens a lot, people say, 'If only he was faster, if only he was bigger, if only he had longer arms,' and as they're talking he's making another great play," Leach said. "I think the thing about Wes that is probably his strongest quality is that he adjusts as quick as anyone I've been involved with."

Leach believes Welker also has another trait that is not easily detected.

"He's convinced me that focus and concentration are a talent," Leach said. "People think of that as being at the dinner table when your father says, 'Hey, pay attention,' but he has a talent for it. When people get fatigued, their concentration ultimately breaks down. His breaks down later than others."

In the NFL, Welker's big jump came in his second season (2005), when he was more involved in the Dolphins' offense (29 catches). He totaled 67 catches last season, and after snaring nine against the Patriots in October, he was double-teamed almost every time in the next meeting.

It was the ultimate sign of respect.

"It was one of those deals where you're kind of excited about it, but at the same time you're upset that you're not able to produce like you know you're capable of," Welker said yesterday on a conference call with the New England media.

With the Patriots, Welker figures to play in the slot, where his feel for the passing game and ability to get in and out of cuts helps him get open. While visiting Gillette Stadium Monday, he met with quarterback Tom Brady and said the two are eager to start working together. Welker also projects to play a significant role as a returner, especially on punts.

He sees it as a perfect fit -- the ultimate underdog coming to the team that stresses the sum of its parts.

"I always kind of envied what the Patriots have done while I was at Miami just because I feel like that's me, I think that's the type of system that I fit in," he said. "You look at me on a piece of paper and I don't look like much at all. Put me on a field with a bunch of guys who like to play ball and it's a whole different story."

Yesterday, Welker was back on the Texas Tech campus, where Leach was proud to bump into his former player.

"There's nothing new about this," Leach said. "He's the greatest overachiever I've ever coached."

Coach Bill Belichick is scheduled to put University of Florida safety Reggie Nelson through a workout today in Gainesville, Fla., according to the Associated Press. Nelson (6-1, 193 pounds) is considered a mid-to-late first-round pick . . . Running back Corey Dillon has drawn the interest of the Bills, who were hoping to host him on a free agent visit today, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Last month, Dillon told the Globe he planned to retire but left a slim opening that he would play again in 2007 . . . Receiver Donte' Stallworth, who visited the Patriots Tuesday, took his scheduled free agent visit with the Titans yesterday . . . Welker said the Patriots' offseason program will begin March 19 and he plans to take part in it.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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