It’s a breakthrough moment

Tate sensed it was time to burst onto the scene

By Robert Mays
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — It’s an unwritten rule for someone who manages to get into the end zone: Credit goes to the blocking. Brandon Tate was quick to say the right thing following the Patriots’ 36-35 exhibition loss to the Rams last night.

Speaking about his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the game’s opening play, Tate said that without his teammates, he wouldn’t have gotten far.

But after a record-setting career as a kick returner in college and his emergence as New England’s top option at the position coming into the season, it’s clear that some recognition is due to the second-year wide receiver.

“Obviously, the guys did a really good job of blocking, and there was a seam there,’’ Patriots running back Sammy Morris said. “He’s fast and explosive. The rest was him.’’

Tate said he had a feeling before the opening kickoff. He was ready to take one back.

“I was telling the coaches, ‘I’m ready. This is going to be the one. This is going to happen,’ ’’ Tate said. “And it was.’’

After catching the ball near the numbers on the left side, Tate moved upfield before cutting back through a large opening in the middle. He made one player miss in the open field, and with just the kicker to outrun, the end result became clear.

“The coaches were telling me, ‘Just hit it. When you get it, just hit it. Don’t be doing too much juking or dancing. Just hit it,’ ’’ Tate said. “So that’s what I did.’’

During his four seasons at North Carolina, Tate established an NCAA record for combined return yardage with 3,523 and finished 304 yards short of the all-time record for kickoff return yardage. He also holds Atlantic Coast Conference records for most kickoff returns for a touchdown in a season (three) and career (six).

That success made Tate a prime candidate to take over kickoff return duties for the Patriots after they drafted him in the third round (83d overall) in 2009. But a knee injury sidelined him until the seventh game of the season. Tate returned four kickoffs and led the team with a 26.5-yard average, but another knee injury ended his campaign after just two games.

Now healthy, Tate has displayed the traits that made him an elite returner in college and define the best return men in the NFL.

“He’s really fast and quick, and makes really good moves,’’ Morris said. “For the kickoff team, it’s kind of tough to defend a guy like that, that reads the blocks well and is good with the ball in his hands.’’

Returning kickoffs at the professional level was an adjustment for Tate. While openings in college left some room for hesitation, the NFL provides no such luxury.

“I’ve just to got to hit it,’’ Tate said. “Hit it and go. You can’t do too much dancing. The holes close up on you. That’s one thing I had to learn fast.

“It’s a little faster. You’ve got to make your decisions quick. You don’t have too much time to think because the dudes will be on you quick.’’

Tate has seen extended time with the first-team offense alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Last night, Tate had two catches for 17 yards, and his 10-yard reception accounted for the Patriots’ only first down on their first four possessions.

Tate said that although playing with the first team is nice, he’ll fill any role that Bill Belichick and the coaching staff see fit.

“If they want me to pass out water, I’ll pass out water,’’ he said.

After a St. Louis touchdown in the first quarter, he was one defender away from breaking a second return. After making his way up the right sideline, Tate had one Ram between him and the end zone — kicker Josh Brown. Brown, an eight-year veteran, managed to wrangle Tate to the ground near the sideline after a 43-yard return.

Tate heard it from his teammates.

“Everybody was laughing because the kicker got me,’’ Tate said. “I tried though. It’s all right.’’

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