In preparation for his rookie season with the New England Patriots, cornerback Ras-I Dowling has returned to his roots. The second-round draft choice from the University of Virginia moved back home with his family and has trained regularly with one of his coaches from Deep Creek (Va.) High School, Richard Cox.
Those who have spent time with Dowling aren't surprised.
Finding cornerbacks who fit such a profile often is a challenge, and if the Patriots' scouting and decision-making process is true -- which is no gimme when considering their up-and-down, early-round draft history in the secondary over the past five years -- they might have set themselves up with a dream-like 1-2 combination at the position for years to come.
For Dowling, however, the focus is on the present and how he can help the Patriots without the benefit of an offseason under the watch of the New England coaching staff.
Asked what his goals and expectations are for 2011, Dowling said "Just come out there and be the same person every day, work hard and help my team win any way I can, whether it's special teams or every down."
One of the big questions around the NFL is how much rookies will be able to help teams, given the lack of spring camps and organized team activities. One line of thinking is that the offseason is the time that rookies make the most improvement, especially when it comes to strength and conditioning, which the lockout has eliminated that this year. Some believe that will dramatically reduce the number of rookies who make an immediate impact.
Then there is the issue of learning the playbook.
"I haven't had a chance [to see one]," said Dowling, whose size (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) and speed (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) are a rare combination, but who slipped in the draft because of injuries in 2010. "That's the reason I'm really waiting for the lockout to end, to get in the playbook and learn the system, and learn from the other guys also."
One aspect that figures to help Dowling, who was selected with the top pick of the second round (33rd overall), is that he played in a Virginia defense that featured some of the same concepts as the Patriots'. That's a natural tie-in because Virginia's former coach, Al Groh, comes from the same Bill Parcells coaching tree as Bill Belichick.
Dowling picked up on the connection during a conversation with McCourty earlier in the offseason. McCourty would relay something about the Patriots' defense and Dowling finished his sentence. That impressed McCourty.
Dowling also has been in contact with some other teammates, such as first-round draft choice Nate Solder, safety Brandon Meriweather and linebacker Jerod Mayo. When Mayo returned home to Virginia to visit family earlier in the offseason, Dowling ran into him.
Otherwise, the main connection Dowling has had with his new teammates was from three days of informal workouts at Boston College in early June.
"It was good, just the opportunity to get out there with my fellow teammates, trying to learn from those guys, and it was great to be up in Boston also," said Dowling, who regularly played special teams at Virginia and lined up at safety in high school. "You see them all the time when you're growing up, on the TV. The chance to be around them, on the field with them, and just interact with them, was really a great feeling."
With the growing likelihood that NFL owners and players will strike a collective bargaining agreement in the coming days, Dowling should soon be interacting with his teammates on a daily basis.
It's been a long wait.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.