Sky’s the limit for Fletcher

Montana St. rookie impressing Patriots

By Barbara Matson
Globe Correspondent / December 25, 2010

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It’s been a big year for big moves for Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher.

The 24-year-old rookie is new to the NFL, new to Boston, new to the inside linebacker position, and after last week’s critical sack of Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn on the first play of the game’s final series, he’s new to the national sports spotlight.

But before he could get his feet straight on the Patriots’ line, Fletcher needed to figure out how to get around in Massachusetts.

“It took some getting used to,’’ Fletcher said yesterday, choosing his words as politely as he could. “The people are very straightforward with what they want, and to the point. Even driving — driving was crazy. I hate when people honk at me and everybody was honking at me.’’

Fletcher had never before been away from home. He was raised in Bozeman, a small but growing college town of 27,000 in the Gallatin Valley of southwestern Montana, surrounded by mountains. Fletcher’s parents owned a 100-acre farm just outside of town, as well as the Cannery, a bar and liquor store, and Burger Bob’s, a hamburger joint, in Bozeman.

When he wasn’t playing sports — hockey, football, and baseball — Fletcher was pitching hay on the farm, or slinging burgers downtown, or, for one memorable summer, working as a “hottie’’ — shoveling hot cement.

An ambitious athlete, Fletcher stayed home to go to Montana State on a partial football scholarship. The scholarship was partial, because Fletcher was, first of all, a rink rat. He played goal for the Bozeman Ice Dogs Junior A hockey team, and he was pushing himself hard to make it to the next level, to a high-powered college program and then the pros, before he decided the pressure to perform was ruining his game, and his life.

“I had really high expectations for myself,’’ said Fletcher. “My senior year, I put too much pressure on myself and tried to do too much. I’d wake up a 5 o’clock in the morning and head to the rink and then I’d be at the rink until 11:30 and then I’d go to school until 3:30 and then I’d come back to the rink and I was at the rink from 4:30 till probably about 11 o’clock at night. I got any kind of ice time I could because I just loved it. But eventually I just got burned out.’’

Football, that was just fun. The 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pounder had scarcely gotten in a game as a junior at Bozeman High, but as a senior, he built up an impressive pile of tackles and earned All-State honors. He had an outstanding career as a defensive end for the Montana State Bobcats — team captain, unanimous first-team conference all-star as a senior, as well as conference defensive MVP with 67 tackles and seven sacks, but this was the Big Sky Conference, where the sky is big but the football is less visible.

Fletcher went undrafted, but not unnoticed. The Patriots signed him as a free agent in April.

“At first, you just look at everything and it’s overwhelming,’’ said Fletcher. “Getting coached by Coach [Bill] Belichick every day and playing against guys like Tom Brady, that was a little overwhelming. Eventually, when I took a step back and looked at it, it’s just football. That’s a main thing that young guys, rookies, need to understand; once you’re on the field, it’s football.

“I mean, I’m from Bozeman, it’s a small town. My parents have always humbled me. That helps. I never get too high, I never get too low, on my accomplishments.’’

Fletcher might best be described by the company he keeps; he shares an apartment with another rookie, tight end Rob Gronkowski; he remains best of friends with his college defensive line coach, Bo Beck; he’s close to his parents and older sister Tana (who is about to deliver the family’s biggest news, her first child); and now he’s hanging with Harry Carson and Tedy Bruschi, at least in the eyes of Belichick.

“Dane’s in a very unusual situation,’’ Belichick said. “It’s a short list of players who have gone from being defensive linemen to being inside linebackers that I’ve worked with: Harry Carson would be one, Bruschi would be two, and Dane would be a third example of that. Most of the time, those guys go from being defensive ends in college to outside linebackers at our level.

“To take a defensive lineman to an inside linebacker position, it’s a much bigger challenge, to go from a defensive lineman to a guy that has coverage responsibilities, formation responsibilities, to seeing the game from your feet, and from depth, as opposed to seeing it this far away from you, [that is] the guy across from you. It’s a whole different ballgame, and there’s not a lot of players that can do that.

“Dane’s done a good job of it. He obviously has a long way to go, he’s nowhere close to being a finished product, but the progress that he’s made from the spring, to training camp, to in-season has been significant, enough that we’re going to continue to work with him there and he’s contributed for us.’’

Fletcher got his start for the Patriots on special teams, and as Belichick noted, a good performance there opened the door. “Dane was good in the kicking game, he was active, and that enabled him to get a bigger role on the defensive side of the ball,’’ said Belichick. “He’s been able to capitalize on some of those opportunities.’’

Rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy Dec. 10 made even more room. Fletcher has played in 11 games thus far, and has collected 16 tackles and the one sack.

Fletcher said the biggest change from college is the speed of the game and the big difference because of his positional change is the increase in homework.

“I felt like in college, I knew my role and there’s a whole different way of studying,’’ said Fletcher. “I really studied the whole linemen to a different level of what their moves are and how I could get on top of them, but at linebacker, you’re kind of the quarterback of the defense and you have to know what you’re doing on top of what everybody else is doing, on top of what the offense as a whole is doing, not just the other linemen, but the receivers and the running backs and everybody.

“So that’s a whole lot on your plate. At first, it just felt like so much, going home and studying everything, instead of just one thing a day. That’s what I had to eventually break it down to, just learning a few things a day and don’t make it more than it is. And that’s kind of what got me through camp and now I’m trying to take on as much as I can. It’s still a learning process.’’

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