FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Josh Uche is entering his third season with the Patriots. In some ways, the 23-year-old still finds himself surrounded by that rookie aura.
The NFL world that Uche entered after being drafted in the second round in 2020 has been complicated due to the continued presence of COVID-19. Even last year, the virus was still present and strong enough to proceed with caution around Gillette Stadium.
You could say Uche is entering his first “normal” training camp in preparation for the upcoming season since the linebacker’s last season at the University of Michigan. Just to clarify, we time travel to 2019 when life didn’t seem so complicated.
“I don’t really know what’s normal for a season in the NFL,” Uche said Wednesday after the end of the Patriots’ first day of training camp. “See you guys [the media] here and all the fans, it’s pretty cool. I guess that’s as normal as it gets.
On the surface, there appears to be a starring role with the 2022 Patriots carrying Uche’s name all over the place. The linebacking unit suffered significant turnover this offseason, particularly the losses of Kyle Van Noy (to the Los Angeles Chargers) as well as a pair of still-free agents in Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.
Opportunity knocks for Uche, who started strong last season with three sacks in the first two games before transitioning to a more menial role, with Bill Belichick’s result relying more on veterans who had the upper hand. of experience.
Now that Pats has moved on from a number of key linebacker pieces on last year’s 10-win team that fell in the wild-card round, the time has come for Uche to demonstrate his true ability.
“I just have to keep my head down and focus on what’s ahead of me,” Uche said when asked about the path to regular playing time that seems to be laid out in front of him. “I have to take it one step at a time, but it’s the next man. Each of us has the opportunity to step in and seize the opportunity. That’s what it boils down to… hard work.
In the dressing room, expectations are high for Uche to make an impact as a regular contributor.
“I think he’s going to have a stellar year,” offensive tackle Trent Brown said. “He’s ready to go.”
Echoed fellow linebacker Matthew Judon, who sported his signature red sleeves with a red hoodie on a day when the temperature was in the mid-80s, “Josh was leading us in sacks at one point so we just have to get him going. I think once he does that he will become a very good player.
Whether it’s getting off the edge or playing the pass, Uche knows he has to be fundamentally solid and stay in his lane as the expectations around him continue to grow.
“Making sure the hands, footwork and technique are good. These things are the basis of football,” he said. “I’m just focused on getting better and better every year…being the best all-around player I can be.”
One area that served as a point of emphasis for Uche during the offseason was mental health after two straight years of navigating COVID waters.
“Visualizing myself more when I’m on and off the pitch,” he said. “Seeing me play games but also reconnecting with my family and strengthening the circle that will carry me far.”
The Pats are even closer to the no-shoulder/limited-contact mandates that are in place during organized off-season team activities than the rock-em, sock-’em jolt of hitting each other in training camp. Nonetheless, linebackers such as Uche are mandated to wear protective Guardian Baps in training camp. Linemen and tight ends also don headgear in an effort to limit injury to that particular part of the body.
“It looks funny. They almost look like Q-tips, (but) that’s what they are,” Uche said. “I didn’t really notice a big difference. It didn’t really bother me.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03