O’Connell stays on track

Improving is goal for Patriots QB

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 3, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Kevin O’Connell was not exactly quaking in his cleats yesterday at the notion that the Patriots were interested in signing a veteran quarterback to compete with him for the role of Tom Brady’s backup.

It’s not that the second-year quarterback doesn’t respect the prospective competition, five-year veteran Cleo Lemon, who worked out for the Patriots Friday. He’s just focused on his own improvement after a rookie season in which he was thrust into the No. 2 role by default when Brady was lost for the season with torn ligaments in his left knee in the season opener and Matt Cassel inherited the starting job.

O’Connell knows that being sour about the team’s interest in Lemon isn’t going to help him.

“No, if I was thinking about that stuff I’m going to come out here and not be prepared for practice,’’ said O’Connell. “That’s all up to coach [Bill] Belichick and those who make those decisions. I’m just coming out here trying to have good practices and prepare myself every day.’’

While the Patriots’ motivation for looking at Lemon, who served as a backup in Jacksonville last season, may have some roots in reservations about O’Connell, it’s also possible that they just want to challenge him.

In Brady’s second season, he beat out veteran Damon Huard for the backup spot behind Drew Bledsoe.

The 24-year-old O’Connell is already competing with Matt Gu tierrez and undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. He said he’d welcome another QB into the mix.

“Absolutely. I mean we have a very competitive group as it is right now,’’ said O’Connell. “I’m sure that wouldn’t change with a quality player coming in. It’s more so about me right now, personally just trying to do what I can to be successful on a play-to-play basis and just be as consistent as I can because I know that’s what’s being asked of me.’’

The 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound O’Connell, a third-round pick last year, possesses a strong arm and excellent mobility. He acknowledged that in his second camp he expects more out of himself and so does the team, but he has been a little inconsistent during the first four days of camp.

Belichick said Friday that with the quarterbacks working with different receivers, running different plays, and seeing a variety of coverages early in camp that the timing was not going to be there. He said O’Connell progressed during the offseason.

“I think he certainly understands the offense better than he did last year,’’ said Belichick. “He’s got to continue to work on the execution. The offense demands a lot of different things and has a lot of different elements to it. Multiple receivers, multiple tight ends, play actions, spread offense - all those kinds of things. I think Kevin’s come a long way in terms of being under center, which is something he did very little of in college at San Diego State. Most of the time he was in the shotgun, so some of the things under center are mechanically a lot better than they were last year.’’

O’Connell, who appeared in two games behind Cassel last season, completing 4 of 6 passes for 23 yards, acknowledged he’s much more comfortable under center now.

“It definitely was a little bit of an adjustment you know, with the timing and the rhythm throws from under center,’’ O’Connell said. “I think every day I come out here it feels better and better. I worked pretty hard on it in the offseason and I’m just continuing to try to improve as we go through training camp.’’

O’Connell is still in touch with Cassel, who was dealt to the Chiefs in the offseason. He said he spoke with Cassel before the start of Kansas City’s camp.

“It’s not so much about talking to him about his experience because I was here last year and watched him do some really great things,’’ said O’Connell. “I learned a lot from that. At the same time he’s definitely a guy that I could call if I ever have a question. That’s for sure.’’

Four days into training camp it’s far too early to draw conclusions about O’Connell.

Cassel was not that impressive last year during the preseason. In four exhibition games, he failed to lead the Patriots to a touchdown in 17 possessions.

If O’Connell needs motivation for proving doubters wrong he only has to look to Cassel.

“If you need motivation like that you shouldn’t be playing,’’ O’Connell said. “I’m motivated by myself to come out here and put a lot of hard work into the field and continue to work hard and just try to get better.’’

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