FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was hard not to notice the black text scribbled on a piece of white tape on Ja’Whaun Bentley’s left wrist as he walked off the Patriots practice field Thursday following the first day of training camp.
The message, which Bentley said was inspired by his brother, was simple and seemed a little obvious, but served as a reminder. “HAVE FUN,” it read.
“That’s the goal, you want to come out here and have fun,” the second-year Patriots linebacker said. “You want to be mentally ready, you want to be prepared. If you do all that, you begin to have fun, so at the end of the day, that’s what we’re out here to do. Football is supposed to be a fun game.”
But in some ways, it probably was hard for Bentley to have the type of fun he hoped during most of his rookie season. The 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Purdue was emerging as a surprising star before suffering a season-ending biceps tear in the Patriots’ Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions, which forced him to observe and learn from the sidelines as he watched his teammates go on to win the Super Bowl without him.
That certainly wasn’t ideal for Bentley as he couldn’t build on the strong momentum he created early in the season, but he embraced it as he still traveled with the team and went to practices, where he continued to learn. And now fully healthy, he’s not taking anything for granted — not only being on the field at all, but also playing at the level he did last season. For Bentley, the key to bouncing back this season is simple.
“Coming out here and being prepared,” Bentley said. “Getting ready to do whatever the coaches ask you to do, one, because you can’t do much if you’re not prepared. ... Everybody has a role on the team and we’re looking to play it well.”
Preparation certainly can be traced to the root of Bentley’s success last season. The linebacker is a junkie in the film room and the results carried over quickly after a strong showing in the preseason, which included a fumble return for a touchdown. He started two of the Patriots’ first three regular-season games at middle linebacker, and even was trusted enough to be the team’s play caller against the Lions.
In three games, Bentley recorded 14 tackles and one interception as he played 138 of a possible 218 defensive snaps.
His loss was something the Patriots ultimately were able to overcome, but his teammates clearly are excited to have him back. Bentley’s return gives their linebacking corps added flexibility, especially in the case of Dont’a Hightower, who can play more on the edge. And with a year under his belt, Bentley certainly will be more comfortable with handling more responsibilities, which can take a load off Hightower.
“He’s the same guy, still a sponge, hard working,” Hightower said of Bentley. “Again, one of the main guys. Everybody in that linebacker room is a big communicator, from me to Jamie to Kyle (Van Noy) to (Christian) Sam to Bentley to Calvin Munson to Brandon King. Everybody’s able to communicate and talk. I think that’s a big thing especially being a linebacker, you’ve got to be able to communicate and Bentley’s definitely one of the guys who loves to watch film and is always doing extra stuff, so I think he’s doing exactly what he did last year.”
If he can do what he did at the beginning of last season, Bentley’s play can elevate a Patriots defense that has the potential to be one of the best Bill Belichick has had in years. His return is one of the most intriguing things to watch, and his teammates are excited to see what he can do.
“You’re always excited to get good football players back,” safety Duron Harmon said. “That’s the main thing. Ja’Whaun obviously is a young, good football player. We’re excited to get him back. I wouldn’t say we’re really expecting anything because you never want to put expectations on anybody, but we know what type of football player he is and I would just say we’re excited to get him back and hopefully get him back to where he was and obviously making steps to continue to grow, because obviously he’s a young linebacker and he has room to grow, as we all do.
“But we’re just looking for him to just continue to be the player he was last year and he’ll be all right.”
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