A season ago, Joe Vellano earned New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's lasting respect. As an undrafted rookie, Vellano capably replaced injured veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in the starting lineup.
It was an eye-opening success story for the gritty former Terps defensive lineman, an All-American at Maryland who was overlooked until he signed with the Patriots in April 2013. When Wilfork tore his right Achilles tendon that September, Vellano stepped in to start eight games and record 59 tackles and three sacks in 18 appearances.
Although Vellano has returned to a backup role since Wilfork's healthy return, he remains a contributor on the Patriots as they prepare for Sunday's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. Vellano played 20 snaps and had a tackle in the Patriots' 45-7 AFC championship game win over the Indianapolis Colts, and has seven tackles and a sack this season.
"It's been a lot of work getting to this point," Vellano told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview from Phoenix. "We just kept getting better as the year went on. Coach Belichick talks about how football starts after Thanksgiving and how you've got to be good at the end of the year. Everybody on this team plays together and for each other. We've just been working hard in practice, preparing hard in every phase and playing complementary football."
Vellano played in the first five games of the season and started the season opener before being cut in October. He was signed to the Patriots' practice squad days later and spent 14 weeks there before being promoted to the active roster one day before the AFC championship.
"Without a doubt, you're just trying to do whatever you can when you get your chance and do whatever you've got to do to win," said Vellano, who replaced injured defensive tackle Chris Jones on the roster. "Especially getting in games, you've got to make sure you do your role on the field and whatever's asked of you."
After not having played in a game since Oct. 5, Vellano was praised by Belichick for his work against the Colts.
"We brought Joe up," Belichick said in a teleconference last week. "It was good that we had that little bit of extra depth. … It was kind of an unsung job in that game of pushing the pocket."
Vellano, 26, has had to be ready whenever needed, and the Albany, N.Y., native said he embraces a blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality. A two-time team captain at Maryland, Vellano had 61 tackles and six sacks as a senior.
"Working hard, that's been established since I was a little kid from my father and right up through the ranks," said Vellano, whose father, Paul, was also a Terps captain and All-America defensive lineman. "At Maryland, I really got into my technique and got good at playing. I give a whole lot of credit to the Maryland coaches, Randy Edsall and Ralph Friedgen. Those guys helped me get to where I am now."
Vellano said he has built a strong relationship with his current coach, Belichick, who's much less stern in private around his players than he is during his largely bland media interviews.
"Yeah, he's the best," Vellano said of the Annapolis native. "He's very funny. He's very smart, history-wise. He's always teaching us lessons. He's a great guy, a Maryland guy."
Playing for the Patriots, Vellano has made deep postseason runs in each of his first two NFL seasons. New England lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship game two years ago and now is a win away from earning a Super Bowl ring. Although the Patriots are embroiled in "Deflategate," Vellano insists the team isn't distracted by the NFL investigation.
"It's us against us, not us against the world," Vellano said. "It's about us always trying to get better and improve. We know what's going on in our room. People think they know what's going on, but they don't. All that stuff and everything else, that's not what we're focusing on. You control what you can control. This is a huge opportunity and challenge for us against a great team."