Neal’s background serves him well


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Bill Belichick is besieged by NFL wannabes who never played college football.

They send videos, make boasts and rarely, if ever, are convincing enough to even get an invitation to a tryout.

“I could show you 1,000 tapes a year of guys who send in stuff,” the Patriots coach said Friday. “”I can play. I was great in high school flag football. This Thursday league that I play in…’ We get 1,000 of those, maybe more than that.”

Stephen Neal didn’t have to send in a multimedia resume.

He was one of the nation’s best wrestlers at California State-Bakersfield, where he won two NCAA Division I titles. He hadn’t played football since attending San Diego High School, but when the Patriots heard that he wanted to pursue the sport, they had him work out.

Now in his fifth year with New England, he’s developed into a solid offensive guard with speed and a work ethic that impressed Belichick from the start.

“There’s a lot of players in football and the NFL that have background in high school or college wrestling,” Belichick said before Sunday’s divisional playoff game at San Diego. “That’s a testament to their balance and their lower body strength and their ability to stay on their feet.”

Neal’s wrestling skills and knowledge of leverage should help in tussles with San Diego’s defensive front seven.

Waiting for the Patriots is another player who skipped college football and made a successful transition to the game.

In four seasons, Antonio Gates has emerged as perhaps the NFL’s best tight end. At 6-feet-4 and 260 pounds, he overpowers would-be tacklers. The positioning and leaping that made him an outstanding college basketball player help him beat defensive backs to the ball.

“If I had to name the best tight end in the league, he would be it,” said Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins, who is six inches shorter and 65 pounds lighter.

Against Gates, the absence of hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison could be key. He’s 6-1 and weighs 220 but is out with a right knee injury.

Gates started at Michigan State but spent most of his college years at Kent State. As a senior, he averaged 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds. That next season, he caught 24 passes for San Diego.

Patriots receiver Reche Caldwell was a second-year player there when Gates arrived and was immediately struck by his potential – “just how big he was, how athletic he was, how physical he was. He had all the tools when he first got there to be a good receiving tight end.”

Gates has led the Chargers in receiving for three straight seasons. Cornerbacks and safeties may be too small too stop him and linebackers could be too slow.

“He kind of boxes out the defender, almost like rebounding a basketball, and he has terrific hands,” Belichick said. “Once he gets position, he can hold that position, and the quarterback puts the ball on the other side of the defender and you just can’t get it.”

Neal’s contribution isn’t as obvious and wasn’t as immediate.

It took Belichick a while to figure out the right position for the 305-pound grappler who once wrestled former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams in high school.

The Patriots even waived Neal about a month after he signed as a free agent in July 2001. He spent most of that season on Philadelphia’s practice squad before New England re-signed him that December.

“We started him off on defense, which was stupid,” Belichick said. “He just couldn’t play on the defensive side of the ball. So by the time we moved him over to offense that first year, he was so far behind in terms of terminology. He didn’t know where to line up in the huddle.”

At least he didn’t have to send in a tape like less talented hopefuls.

“I’m telling you, some of those are just classics,” Belichick said. “The guy has his girlfriend out there throwing passes to him. He’s the receiver.”

“You can imagine,” he marveled. “You can imagine.”

AP-ES-01-12-07 1745EST