FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — To put it in college football parlance, Bret Bielema’s redshirt season with the Patriots is over.
After joining New England in a generic consultant role last year, Bielema conveyed to reporters Friday he’s been promoted to defensive line coach. The former Arkansas and Wisconsin head man has replaced one of the five assistants the Patriots lost this offseason. No longer will Bielema bounce between position rooms during meetings or position groups over the course of a given practice.
The defensive line is all his.
“Last year, I kind of floated, and this year I’ve been very excited with this group,” Bielema said. “Obviously we’re just through phase two (of the offseason program), just a couple weeks. Tremendous workers. Even the group last year, I always thought they had the pulse, and they’ve continued to build.”
Bielema’s transition from career college football coach to NFL employee was eased last year by his familiarity with a small chunk of New England’s roster. He coached four Patriots in college — running back James White, defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., offensive tackle Dan Skipper and fourth-round rookie guard Hjalte Froholdt — and a few former Pats, too (Trey Flowers and A.J. Derby). The experience he gained rubbing elbows with the rest of the roster now serves him in the same way moving forward.
Untethered to the day-to-day demands of positional coaching, Bielema also became schooled on the pillars of Bill Belichick’s program in 2018. From the structure and principles of his defense to the thinking behind the team’s schedule, he consumed big-picture New England ideas in small bites every day. His aerial view of the Patriots’ operations was at times quite literal: Bielema sat high up in the coaches’ booths on game days.
Coming back down to earth this season, Bielema wants to pour every lesson learned over his career into this new position.
“Now’s the opportunity to take all the things I learned as an assistant before I became a head (coach) and all the things I learned about as a head coach that I wanted for my assistants,” Bielema said, “to be the best I can be and obviously help this program in any way I can.”
Replicating the success New England’s defensive front enjoyed last season would be a solid starting point. The Patriots’ front took steady strides before shredding every offensive line it encountered in the playoffs, pressuring Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, league MVP Patrick Mahomes and Rams quarterback Jared Goff on more than 40 percent of their respective snaps. Without Flowers, that may prove challenging.
But Bielema knows he has the ultimate ally at his back, particularly when it comes to setting a championship standard.
“Especially with coach Belichick, I think (defensive line)’s always been an emphasis; of how that group plays and the foundation of establishing things up front,” he said. “And I think the guys come here knowing that. The guys that have been here, the guys that are coming in now understand that. So it’s kind of easy to let them know where we stand and what we expect.”
Bielema says he witnessed the execution of this expectation years ago on a visit to New England during one day of OTAs. Even then as the head coach of a respected FBS program, he was struck by the efficiency of the Patriots’ practice, the crispness of their drills and commitment to perfecting fundamentals. It was a day Bielema will never forget.
“There’s definitely an atmosphere of just from the moment you walk in the building in this organization until the time you leave, it’s a little bit different,” he said. “It’s not really just one thing. It’s a way, a mode of operation and an expected level of success that stands apart.”
And now he’s a part of that expectation, his redshirt burned and a whistle returned around his neck.
Welcome back, rookie.