FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Defensive players don’t come near New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady when he’s wearing a red jersey at training camp.
The same goes for backups Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow.
However, Devin McCourty is a different story.
The Patriots safety has been donning the protective jersey through the first two weeks of camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
It didn’t do him much good.
“I got tackled one time in a red jersey,” he said. “So I don’t know how much of a difference it made.”
He finally shed the red, instead sporting the traditional blue jersey for the first time at practice Saturday. Now McCourty is ready to make an even bigger impact for a New England secondary that is looking to distinguish itself this season.
“I think our goal every year is to come out and be the strength of the defense,” McCourty said. “No matter how well we play up front, they can’t stop it if a team comes out and decides to pass the ball every time. We want to hold up our end, and we know everyone else is going to hold up theirs.”
The 25-year-old McCourty has more than held up his end of the bargain as the leader of the secondary.
He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie cornerback out of Rutgers in 2010 with seven interceptions, but had a sophomore slump with just two interceptions in 14 games.
By the end of his second season, McCourty occasionally shifted to safety. When New England acquired shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay late last year, the move became permanent.
“It’s always challenging. That’s probably the reason why I’m playing multiple positions, just to make sure I can keep playing both and keep staying fresh on it,” said McCourty, who had five interceptions last season. “I wish I could say it’s as easy as riding a bike, but it’s not. You’ve got to be out there and getting reps and experience certain things.
“As we get into the season, seeing different teams, seeing what they do, and viewing it from a corner standpoint and a safety standpoint is where the biggest difference is.”
Despite playing mostly safety for seven of the first eight training camp practices, McCourty isn’t about to pick favorites.
“I like wherever they put me. It’s a chance to help the team win,” he said. “To be able to practice a couple positions always helps you throughout the season. Injuries happen, things happen, so you never know. You can’t take everyone you want into games, so you never know if we’ve got to play musical chairs back there.”
Too often that’s been the case for New England in recent years.
The Patriots last season surrendered 277 passing yards per game, fourth-worst in the NFL, and 27 touchdowns, which was the 12th highest total in the league.
A year earlier, they allowed 294 passing yards a game, trailing only Green Bay’s 32nd-ranked passing defense.
The re-signing of Talib and the offseason acquisition of 12-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson bolsters a unit in desperate need of an identity.
And they believe they’ve finally found it.
“I feel we have a great group of guys, just high-character guys,” said fifth-year cornerback Kyle Arrington. “The thing about it is we all like each other, we hang out off the field, and I think that plays a huge, important role into our comfortability with each other on the field.”
Earlier in camp, Wilson downplayed his own leadership role, saying instead he’s just following McCourty’s lead.
McCourty returned the compliment.
“I think him being in the league so long and the things he’s accomplished, leader comes with his name,” he said. “He’s definitely a leader for us and I have a great deal of respect for him, he has a great deal of respect for me.”
To Arrington, there’s no question about the stewardship of the secondary — red jersey or not.
“That’s a great combination — smart, fast, athletic back there at safety for us,” he said. “Devin, he’s a great leader and we just try to follow his lead, follow his example.
“He’s smart, knows the playbook, puts people in the right positions, so definitely glad to have a guy like that on our team.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.