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McCourty won't set any limits

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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They were 8 or 9 years old when they started dreaming. Devin and Jason McCourty decided then - their minds convinced by the magic of television - that they would buy their mother a house. Phyllis Harrell had, after all, raised them as a single mother after their father died when the twins were 3, had shuttled them to modeling and acting sessions - they were once extras on “Saturday Night Live’’ - would take them to AAU games and football practices. She deserved a house, preferably one with enough room for the boys to come home and crash.

It was a dream for years, as they grew up, as they went to Rutgers, as Jason was selected by the Titans in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, as Devin was taken by the Patriots in the first round in 2010. The dream crystallized then, gained a foothold, and became reality three weeks ago, when Harrell moved into the house in Montvale, N.J.

“It was cool to see it,’’ Devin McCourty said. “Just to see how happy she was, being in a house where she got to pick it. I think all little kids want to do something like that for their parents when they grow up.’’

Buying a house. Being a star NFL player. Devin McCourty’s list of little-kid dreams has gotten quite a few check marks lately. He had, after all, exceeded any but the most wild predictions in his rookie season, coming to the Patriots’ rescue when Leigh Bodden went down, becoming not just a reliable cornerback but a playmaker, one of the few the Patriots have on defense, and eventually a Pro Bowler.

And that came after his career had started with questions. NFL executives and analysts and talking heads wondered why the Patriots would spend a first-round pick on a player some saw as merely a special-teams player, a guy to throw into nickel packages. He was not supposed to be what he became, at least not in their eyes.

“Everyone has an opinion,’’ McCourty said. “Even I watch a movie and I have an opinion about it. It doesn’t mean it’s true. I saw what people said and I didn’t pay much attention to it. I knew when I got drafted that most people thought I was just a special-teams player, but that’s not my concern. My concern was playing for the New England Patriots.

“I don’t ever limit myself as a player. I don’t think any player does. I don’t think they step on the field and say ‘I’m just a special teams guy, I’m just this, I’m just that.’ ’’

He won’t do it this season, either, one that could continue his progress from doubted to dominant. The transition from the first year of an NFL player’s career to the second is widely regarded as the biggest and most important jump. He’s not new anymore. He knows what NFL life is like. He’s had a year of games and instruction and knowledge. He can focus on football. And McCourty can look at that jump from a unique perspective. His twin brother and fellow cornerback just went through it.

While he won’t have some of the advantages his brother had, like the OTAs and minicamp that were wiped out by the lockout, McCourty has the potential to enter the upper echelon of cornerbacks, the potential to become a New England version of the Jets’ Darrelle Revis, the potential to continue an upward path from a rookie season that included seven interceptions.

He has “coverage skills, instincts, some things you can’t coach,’’ former NFL safety and current analyst Matt Bowen said. “Some guys just have unique ball skills, unique instincts that are uncoachable, and those are the guys you see that show up on “SportsCenter’’ highlights all the time. They always have a read on the football.’’

“He was able to make plays,’’ Jason McCourty said. “A lot of times being a defensive back you have an inkling of what’s going to happen and anticipate that but may not be quick enough to get there, or sometimes you’re not able to make the play. Sometimes, for whatever reason, opportunities don’t come your way. Watching Dev [last] year, what I saw the most was that when a play came or opportunity was created for him to make a play, he made it.

“We always talk about it, when you get to this level there’s not many quarterbacks that are going to throw you the ball. When you finally get one to throw you the ball, you’ve definitely got to take advantage of it. To have made seven interceptions his rookie year, he definitely did that.’’

The interception total was, in fact, one more than he had in his four years at Rutgers. As Jason said, “It’s nothing new, but when you get to the level of the NFL and you do it, it’s a totally different world.’’

It was more than most expected from McCourty. It was more than McCourty expected from himself.

He began to feel comfortable after the Chargers game, on Oct. 24, the game in which he got his first NFL pick. He began to play with more confidence. He started making plays. He started truly helping the team, in his eyes.

“To have the amount of interceptions he had as a rookie, to have that type of production, that’s something to talk about,’’ Bowen said. “As a rookie it’s so hard to come into this league and to concentrate on your technique and to be able to adapt in transition to the speed of a wide receiver in the NFL, it’s something you never see in college, never.

“So it takes a special player to be able to come in [and do what McCourty did]. Ultimately it comes down to the player and their technique and how they play the game. I thought Devin McCourty was great at that last year from the standpoint of a first-year player. You don’t see that very often.’’

There was, of course, no way to predict what McCourty did last season. There’s no way to predict what he’ll do this season.

But the foundation is there. The skills are there. The desire is there. The confidence is there. And the knowledge is there, that he can’t rest on what he did in his rookie season, that his spot on the field is contingent on what he’s doing for the team now, that he has to take advantage of every moment and every opportunity.

“I remember last year it was him asking me all the questions, like what do you guys do about this, how do you do your DB drills, stuff of that nature,’’ Jason McCourty said. “Now he’s spent a year in New England under coach [Bill] Belichick, now he has all the ideas about what he’s supposed to do, this drill and that drill. You can see how much he believes in the things they teach them.

“He’s leading us in workouts some days. There’s a group of us working out at Rutgers, everybody just throwing in their ideas and things they do and stuff like that. You can just tell the difference, his confidence has risen, and I can definitely tell that he’s ready for his sophomore season.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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