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FOXBORO – From journeyman to Superman? Rob Ninkovich comes closest to filling that description on the roster of the New England Patriots.
The sixth-year linebacker out of Purdue, in his third year with the Patriots after previous stops in Miami and New Orleans, seems to be making a habit of getting noticed in prime-time games. He had two interceptions last October in Miami on Monday Night Football, and repeated that performance Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, including a 12-yard return for a touchdown that put the final nail in the coffin of the Jets in their 37-16 loss.
Not bad for a kid that started his college career with the Boilermakers with a touch of Clark Kent in him – as a non-scholarship tight end.
“Coming out of high school (in New Lenox, Ill., about 30 miles southwest of Chicago), I didn’t have any offers,” Ninkovich said Wednesday in the Patriots’ locker room. “I had to go to junior college, and when I went to Purdue I wasn’t offered a scholarship as a defensive end, I went there as a tight end. There were a couple of guys starting in front of me, I never started in college.
“And coming into the NFL, I was a special-teams guy,” he added. “Having a few injuries, being a long-snapper I’m happy to
be where I am right now.”
Like another player that wore No. 50 before him, Mike Vrabel, Ninkovich is starting to show signs that he’s another in a long line of “finds” by Bill Belichick – players who come to the Patriots without a great deal of experience and are given a chance to prove themselves.
“The organization itself just gives guys chances to go out there and do things that maybe other guys wouldn’t let them do,” Ninkovich said.
“I can speak for anything that happened in Miami or New Orleans,” Belichick said, “but Rob is a guy that was productive in college look, Wes Welker was cut by a team. (Tom) Brady was picked in the sixth round. It’s no perfect science.
“But Rob’s come in here and done a good job for us since the day he got here,” he added. “He’s performed well in the kicking game, he played outside linebacker and backup long-snapper we’ve asked him to do a lot of things, and he’s done a good job. He’s been dependable and he’s been versatile.”
“Coaching has to do a lot with it,” said Ninkovich, a fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2006, of his emergence as a starter. “Obviously, you have to be able to accept the coaching, but I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here in my three short years. Hopefully I can continue to learn from the best.”
And when someone suggests that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a defensive force?
“Anybody who wants to say anything, it’s just more good motivation for me. It makes me continue to push on,” he said.
Most impressive has been his nose for the ball when it’s in the air. He now has four career interceptions, and while he hasn’t yet been considered for Vrabel’s old role as a goal-line tight end, it’s not out of the realm of possibility he might be called upon in the weeks to come. He’s got the background.
“I caught a lot of passes (in high school), but I was more of a running back than a tight end in my senior year. I caught a lot out of the backfield, but when I went to Purdue, I was a tight end.
“I’ve always been able to catch, so it’s good as a defensive player to be able to catch the ball when it comes your way,” he said.
The next quarterback he’ll be trying to torment is one he might know better than most of the fans who follow the NFL.
Tyler Palko will get the start for the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football at Gillette Stadium (8:30 p.m.; ESPN, Ch. 5), as former Patriot Matt Cassel suffered injuries to his shoulder and throwing hand in last week’s 17-10 loss to Denver. Palko completed five of six passes for 47 yards in his relief stint for the injured Cassel, and will have to assume leadership of his slumping 4-5 team in the national spotlight.
“I played with him ’07, it think that was his rookie year,” Ninkovich said. “He was in New Orleans with me. I just knew him a little bit then. He doesn’t have too many games played, but he stuck around the league for a while, so he’s obviously a good quarterback and he can make the good throws.
“In preseason he did pretty good, so we’ve just got to study what he did,” he added. “He had a good college career at Pitt he can make all the throws you need to make as a quarterback, so you’ve got to respect him.”