Brace gets mental game up to speed

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots selected Ron Brace in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, one of the attributes that appealed to Coach Bill Belichick was his size.

"Big man, powerful, explosive. He gives a good element of size and power," Belichick said on the day the team picked Brace 40th overall.

That size and power was hardly spotted on the field last season, leading some to ask the question: What happened to the highly touted Brace?

Soaked in sweat following Wednesday's organized team activity, the former Boston College standout shed some insight about his under-the-radar rookie season. He said that while his 6-foot-3, 330-pound frame might have looked the part, he was fighting a difficult battle inside his helmet.

"There are a lot of people built for this game physically but not a lot of them are made for it mentally. I had to build my mind up stronger and try to catch up to everybody else," Brace acknowledged. "Before [in college], I had to know my gap and I was there. Now, I have to know what I'm doing, what my teammate is doing, what the opponent is doing. I had to put a lot of work in there."

Brace called the mental aspect "a real big shock," which likely explains his limited contributions last season. He played approximately 50 snaps on defense, with his most extended action coming Dec. 20 against the Buffalo Bills when he earned his first start at nose tackle in place of the injured Vince Wilfork.

Brace had an up-and-down performance in Buffalo, and at one point was pulled off the field when the Bills seemed to successfully run at him behind double- and triple-team blocks. But he also showed some flashes of excellence, such as drawing a holding penalty on center Geoff Hangartner with a powerful rush up the middle.

"It's definitely something I can build off," Brace said Wednesday. "It was my first game in the NFL starting and I had a lot of butterflies and that caused me to think a lot. An old coach used to tell me, 'You think, you stink.' "

While Brace looks to make strides mentally, he also had work to do on the physical side. He feels a full offseason in the Patriots' program has helped him become faster, stronger and quicker on his feet when it comes to change of direction.

"Three-hundred and sixty-five days to the day I got here, I feel a lot better, like a different person from when I came here last year," he said.

When the Patriots selected Brace, he was viewed by many as insurance at nose tackle should Wilfork depart in free agency after the 2009 season. With Wilfork signing a lucrative five-year contract to remain in New England, it seems as though Brace's best chance to emerge would now come at defensive end.

At this point, Brace isn't aware of the team's plans for him, saying he's willing to play any position the coaches want him.

"I'd say my time will come soon enough," he said when asked what he'd say to those wondering why he hasn't emerged. "I have to put the work out there so I can get on the field. I have to earn my spot and I still have to learn a lot of things. Coach Belichick has been around here a long time and it was my first year. He has a reason for his ways."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.