Patriots getting ‘elite pass rusher’ in Michigan OLB ‘gym rat’ Josh Uche

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New England native and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has a pretty simple description of Patriots second-round pick Josh Uche.

It’s one that will be music to the ears of Patriots fans, teammates and coaches, while serving as an early warning to opposing NFL quarterbacks.

“Elite pass rusher,” Brown summarized when asked exactly what Bill Belichick acquired when he traded up into the second round to get Uche with the 60th overall selection.

The 6-1, 245-pound Uche arrives in New England after notching 20.5 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three passes defensed in his time in Ann Arbor. Uche was a part-time player and pass-rush specialist for most of his career before sliding into the starting lineup as a more well-rounded outside linebacker last fall, when he tallied a career-high 8.5 sacks to earn Wolverines Defensive Player of the Year honors as voted by his teammates.

Uche decided to leave Michigan after his red-shirt junior season. Brown admits he somewhat selfishly tried to convince his star pass rusher to return for one final year of continued on-field growth. Brown thought Uche’s development compared favorably with that of former Kentucky star Josh Allen, who was the No. 7 overall pick by the Jaguars in the 2019 NFL Draft and went on to earn Pro Bowl honors as a rookie last fall with 10.5 sacks.

“I thought maybe,” Brown said of Uche being a potential 2021 first-round pick. “But how can you argue with a guy who goes 60th in the draft? I mean it’s not like he’s going in the fifth or sixth round where you can never make that money up. The guy’s going to the Patriots. He’s going to get developed. It couldn’t be a better scenario for him. So it’s all good.

“Just the opportunity to be developed in that system, it really kind of fits him. They do a lot, we study them a lot, and there are some similar things that we do. So I think it’s a win-win for Josh, I really do.”

Brown’s relationship with Uche dates back to the pass rusher’s early high school days in Miami, when the then-Boston College defensive coordinator began recruiting him. When Brown moved on to Michigan in 2016, Uche was one of his first signings to the school. He admits that minor injuries slowed development until a coming out party of sorts in late September of 2018, a pair of sacks against Northwestern that was the first of three multi-sack games for Uche against Big Ten opponents in little more than a month.

“So if there’s a breakout game, that was it. The thing that he always had, is he had elite ability to rush the passer. And really from that point forward we tried to give him as many pass rush scenarios as we could create for him,” Brown recalled recently while spending his coronavirus stay-at-home time on Cape Cod awaiting word on when college football might resume at Michigan.

A year ago, Brown sat back and watched as another stud Michigan edge player, Chase Winovich, landed in New England as a third-round pick (No. 77 overall) who went on to have an impressive rookie season with 16 games played, playing 29-percent of defensive snaps and notching 5.5 sacks among his 20 tackles.

The obvious question for Brown, then, is to compare the two Wolverine-turned-Patriot edge players.

“I think the Patriots have two very, very good pass rushers,” Brown declared. “I think Chase is much more of, he does a lot of his damage on the edge. Where Josh is a little bit more versatile and can go inside and attack too. So there is definitely qualities that they both have. The key is they both can run. They can get off. Step one and two are really good. Josh has a little bit more shake. Chase has a little bit more lead in his pencil and has that ability to bend the edge. Josh can do those things, but he also can shake and work you on the inside as well.”

Though two bring versatile athleticism to the edge combined with a common work ethic, even if their personalities are a bit divergent.

“He’s a handworker too. Very similar. But Chase is a little bit more loud, this guy’s a little bit more subtle,” Brown said of Uche. “But, boy, silent but deadly. And he can rush inside and outside, now. He’s a great blitzer. Does a great job of getting skinny, turning his shoulders. But boy when it comes time to put his hands on you he can do that too.”

In fact, Brown believes the strength and size that Uche added over the last couple years is the part of his game that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

“He’s an elite pass rusher. The thing that he has, he’s surprisingly strong. When he puts his hands on you, I mean he can shake your Chiclets,” Brown said sounding every bit the man of four-plus decades coaching college football. “There is no doubt about it. A lot stronger than he looks. And now he’s 245 pounds. So that’s a completely different human being than the one that started here.”

Mentally and physically Uche has come a long way from the skinny, speedy son of Nigerian immigrants that Brown first recruited out of Chistopher Columbus High School. He made “HUGE strides” in 2019 to expand his game on the field and in the preparation he put in to make more plays in a centerpiece role on the Michigan defense.

Now he’ll put those skills to work transitioning to life as a professional, life as a Patriot, where Brown expects him to be a first-in, last-out guy at Gillette Stadium.

“Gym rat,” Brown said. “In the building all the time. You look up, he’s there. One of those kind of guys. He’s a bit of a gym rat. Loves to watch tape. Loves to study pass rushers. He’s great at that. He’d come in, ‘Coach, I want to watch Von Miller.’ OK, let’s go. He’s one of those kind of guys. Just a gym rat. A guy that was around the building all the time.

“Obviously this is a very humble kid. Was a three-star (recruit) coming out of high school. Ranked like the 700th best player in the country coming out of high school. Gimme a break. That tells you about how important those things are. Because this guy, he has the one innate quality that everybody looks for, the dude can run. He had that ability to just rush the passer. That’s what he did in high school. And that’s what he was really good at.

“Life is good for Josh Uche.”