Drawn to X's and O's

At his first three coaching stops, the same question was asked. Are you sure you really want to do this?

The answer, a resounding yes, tells a lot about 35-year-old Matt Patricia, one of the top in-house candidates to become the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator.

The reason they asked the question -- first at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, then Amherst College and Syracuse University -- is that they saw the gift he had. There aren't many sharp-minded aeronautical engineers who decide to coach football for peanuts.

So they asked him if he was sure, and each time Patricia answered with no hesitation. The first time came when he called up his college coach at Rensselaer, Joe King.

Patricia, like Bill Belichick, had played center in college. He wasn't the most gifted player, but was sound with his technique, extremely smart, and made all the calls for the offensive line.

King was thrilled to have Patricia on campus as a coaching intern in 1996, but he wanted to make sure it was truly the right decision for one of the favorite players he's coached over the last 21 seasons. Patricia could have been working in the engineering field, making a good wage, and King didn't want to see him throw that all away on a whim.

Patricia explained that it wasn't about the money. He was looking for something more rewarding and he knew it was coaching. That eased King's mind, so he put Patricia -- who he calls a "throwback" with "great passion for the game" -- at the bottom of the coaching ladder.

"He did most of the jobs that an intern does -- running study halls, he was involved in recruiting, making cut-ups," King said. "I don't want to say he was emptying the baskets, but he was doing the most menial jobs. It was whatever was asked of him, but in most cases, you wouldn't have to ask him. He was already doing it on his own."

Patricia worked as an engineer for two years after that season at RPI before delving back into coaching at Amherst, where he signed on as a graduate assistant coach. He made somewhere between $6,000 to $8,000, significantly less than he had earned as an engineer. He took classes toward his master's degree in education at UMass while also coaching Amherst's defensive line in 1999 and 2000.

"One thing that struck me right away was that he was trained in engineering and he was a computer whiz," recalled Amherst coach E.J. Mills. "We had just gotten a new video system and that's where you knew Matty was special. He was on the cutting edge. We'd be breaking a game down and he'd have his Excel spreadsheet saying, 'We can do this, we can do that.' It is stuff that might be commonplace now, but he was ahead of it 10 years ago, always thinking outside the box."

Patricia certainly wasn't afraid to think big, as evidenced by his choice of dog, a giant Saint Bernard that frightened some of his fellow coaches. He also leaned toward big-time thoughts when it came time to decide on his next career step.

After the 2000 season, in which Amherst beat rival Williams for the first time in 12 years, Patricia was considering a full-time job at Division III Saint Lawrence or a graduate assistant position at Division I Syracuse. He went for the lower-profile job at Syracuse because his long-term goal at the time was to coach at that level.

"I remember him calling me and talking about the possibility of coming to Syracuse as a graduate assistant and I said, 'Matt, you sure you want to do that?'" recalled Dennis Goldman, who was Syracuse's wide receivers coach at the time. "I had known him from our clinics and I remember saying to myself, 'This is a rocket scientist, an aeronautical engineer, and he wants to coach football?' I told him if it's something he really wanted to do, it would be a good place for him, but he better make sure it was something he really wanted."

Goldman recalled Patricia as a tireless worker in his three seasons at Syracuse (2001-03), breaking down opponents' film, drawing scout-team cards, printing scripts and being on the computer with the team's playbook -- "tedious work that took hours and hours to do."

Goldman also put Patricia to work on a special project.

"You're talking about a brilliant, brilliant guy," he said. "My daughter was in high school at the time, taking calculus, and she was having a little trouble. So he would come over the house and tutor her and helped her to the point where she was able to get a great grade."

Patricia was looking for a coaching position in 2004 -- Central Connecticut State University was a possibility -- when an unexpected opportunity with the Patriots presented itself. He jumped and he's since risen from coaching assistant (2004) to assistant offensive line coach (2005) to linebackers coach (2006-09).

"As a player for Bill Belichick, you're judged by the improvement you make over the course of your career," said former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi. "It's the same for young coaches. 'Matty P' improved so quickly that it didn't take long for me to lean on him on a daily basis with my questions on various defenses and opponents."

Now the question is whether he'll be the team's next defensive coordinator. If Belichick decides to fill the position in-house, Patricia and defensive line coach Pepper Johnson are the top candidates.

If it's Patricia, the question won't have to be asked.

By this point he's sure, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

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