FOXBOROUGH — Jerod Mayo always has seemed more mature than his age, something that was evident as soon as he was drafted 10th overall by the Patriots in 2008.
But entering his sixth season, he is the oldest and most experienced of the linebackers who will be regular contributors for New England.
Just don’t tell him he’s the “old man” in his position room.
“No!,” Mayo said Thursday afternoon when the phrase comes up, a dimple-bearing smile emerging on his face.
Then he reconsidered.
“Well, maybe in the [linebackers] room. But we’ve still got Pep [linebackers coach Pepper Johnson]. Pep, he played, so he’ll always be the oldest in the room,” Mayo said.
Bill Belichick says he doesn’t play favorites, but it’s not a secret at Gillette Stadium that Mayo is one of his prized pupils. The 27-year-old is a no-frills, team-first, hard-working, consistent, reliable film junkie — some of Belichick’s favorite traits.
Mayo has been the constant as young linebackers have been brought in to play alongside him, from Brandon Spikes in 2010 to Dont’a Hightower last year to Jamie Collins this season. All have credited Mayo with helping them in the classroom and on the field.
“I’m not going to go ask them, do they need help,” Mayo said. “Hopefully, they just see how I work and kind of follow the lead of the older guys like Tom [Brady], like Vince [Wilfork] and even Coach Belichick — he’s here all day every day. We have great leaders on this team, great examples to follow.”
Mayo is big on leading by example, and younger teammates would be wise to follow him to likely his favorite spot in the building: the film room. He spends hours poring over tape, remote control in hand.
“I just enjoy the game. I really don’t watch TV copies of games that much; I watch cutups,” he explained. “I like the schemes, the chess aspect of the game, the strategy that goes into it — what the coaches are thinking. I like that part of the game a lot.”
It began at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, Va., where he was an All-State linebacker and a success at running back as well, with 1,245 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in seven games his senior year.
“They came out with the first [digital] machines where you could watch without putting tape in, and we got one of those and I was always in the office,” Mayo recalled. “It was like the best thing ever.”
At the moment, his film focus is on what the Patriots are doing in training camp.
“I’m pretty much just watching what we’re doing out here. I’m not really watching the opponents right now, I’m just watching our problem plays and what’s given us problems in the past years,” Mayo said. “It’s a different team this year than it was last year and years past — this team will be good at some things and we’ll have to improve in other things.”
Despite some rookies rotating in, as well as veteran newcomers fitting into the system, Mayo seems pleased with what he’s seen.
“I’m seeing guys out there flying around, having a good time playing football,” he said. “That’s all you can ask — go out there and have fun and at the same time execute, communicate, which is always a challenge, especially when you have new guys on the team, communication, just have to get better at that.”
Even in the first days of camp, the defense has been spirited, particularly when the first unit is up against Brady and the first-team offense in red-zone situations.
Mayo noted the mix of players with different levels of experience, then singled out safety Adrian Wilson as a great addition.
After joking that Wilson brings “a set of biceps” — Devin McCourty has nicknamed the chiseled Wilson “the Incredible Hulk” — Mayo says the former Cardinal “just brings that experience, some different philosophies, how to do different things but at the same time playing within the scheme. He’s a smart guy and he’s played a lot of football.”
A two-time Pro Bowl selection, and an All-Pro in 2010, Mayo is still one of those players, Belichick said recently, who continues to improve despite having several seasons under his belt.
Mayo sets goals at the start of every season and posts them inside his locker.
“I write them down and I track them along the way, I think that’s very important. I set not only personal goals but team goals, as well,” he said. “Obviously, the team goals come first, and that’s just taking it one day at a time.
“You have to set little goals — you have to set big goals, but have little goals within those big goals, little check marks that I’m on pace to get on the right goal.”
As for what one or two of those goals might be, Mayo isn’t telling — yet.
“I’ll tell you after the season,” he said, “what was my success rate on the goals.”