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Undersized DT used to overcoming odds

4/13/2005

When he was a sophomore in high school, at a time when the simple priority for most kids is securing a driver's license, Mike Patterson was driven to a greater goal. And so, fueled by his dreams, Patterson packed most of his belongings, left his family behind in Sacramento, Calif., and headed for the brighter lights of Southern Cal.

So, another tale of some aspiring young actor willing to sacrifice just about anything to make it big in Hollywood, right?

Uh, no, not quite.

An emerging football talent, but concerned that his early dominance was a function of beating up on inferior competition, Patterson decided that he had to move to a higher level. Which precipitated, with the blessing of his parents, the trek from Sacramento to Orange County, where he moved in with an aunt and uncle.

And where he clearly moved his game up several notches. Ratcheted it up so far, in fact, that he eventually won a scholarship to Southern California, and achieved a measure of success that could land him in the first round of the NFL draft.

"When you're 14 or 15 or whatever, and you leave home like that, sure, it's difficult," allowed Patterson, one of the most intriguing prospects in the defensive tackle pool. "I mean, I'd get to go home maybe on holidays, and my folks would come down a couple times during the school year to see me. I suppose it's a little unusual. But in my mind, if I was going to be the best football player I could be, it was something I had to do."

For sure, a 14-year-old kid's leaving home to pursue a football career is more than a little unusual. Then again, Patterson is an unusual person, a self-motivated career overachiever who has successfully navigated hurdles some pundits suggested he might never clear. In the words of Trojans coach Pete Carroll, people should "never try to impose limits" on Patterson, because the zeal of the feisty defensive tackle knows no boundaries.

At just a hair under six-feet tall, checking in at about 292 pounds, Patterson is an anomaly at the defensive tackle position. Plug his measureables into the computer programs that some teams employ to aid in the draft winnowing, and it would spit Patterson out as a reject. Turn on the video machine, though, and spend even a few minutes reviewing his play, and it's clear he is a sure-fire prospect at nose tackle.

How much a prospect? Early in Patterson's college career, Ed Orgeron, his defensive line coach at USC and now the head coach at Mississippi, dubbed him "Baby Sapp." The handle was, of course, an obvious reference to NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a player whose quickness and playmaking skills Patterson shares.

While their physical dimensions are disparate, Patterson possesses the kind of one-gap quickness, the ability to penetrate into the backfield and blow up a play, that made Sapp one of the game's most dominant interior defenders. It is that innate quickness, and knack for being able to cut through the trash and get to the football, that first attracted scouts to Patterson. It is those qualities that will make him a high-round draft choice.

A few teams even have Patterson rated higher on their boards than Trojans teammate Shaun Cody, the more celebrated of the two, and with whom he formed one of the best college tackle tandems in recent memory. For the most part, those teams play one-gap defenses, schemes that place a priority on getting up the field. And while Patterson said last week he wouldn't mind playing some two-gap style, just to provide himself at another challenge, he is pragmatic enough to understand that his future is better served going to a team that turns its defensive linemen loose.

He first realized he was quicker than just about everyone else on the field, Patterson said, when he made a play against Kansas State in his junior season. The play came against an option run and Patterson, slicing through the "A" gap from his nose tackle position and into the backfield, made the third-and-short stop for a loss.

As he picked himself up from the pile, and headed back to the huddle, he experienced an epiphany of sorts.

Said Patterson, recalling the moment his lightning-quick speed turned on the light above his head: "I kind of thought to myself, 'Wow, they can't handle me.' I'm just too quick for them to block. I mean, it was like I was playing at a different speed than everyone else on the field. I guess that's when I realized that my quickness was always going to be my calling card and that's what might make me an NFL player."

It isn't speed alone, though, that has forced scouts to strongly consider Patterson as a viable first-round prospect. A onetime high school wrestling champion, Patterson has a keen sense of leverage and positioning, and understands the nuances of the game.

"His production," said Carroll, who has recommended Patterson to many of his former NFL colleagues, "is amazing." During his college tenure, Patterson notched 146 tackles, including 46 stops for loss, had 21½ sacks and more than 30 pressures, and posted a school-record 13 fumble recoveries.

The quantity of sacks, given that Patterson played at nose tackle, a position where pass rushers are rare, is eye-opening. But it's the fumble recoveries, which reflect just how much Patterson is around the ball and at the bottom of a lot of piles, that perhaps are even more mind-boggling.

The kid who left home as a teen to seek success rarely leaves the field without having made a meaningful play on almost every series.

"It's all worked out pretty good, hasn't it?" Patterson allowed.

It has, indeed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.