Sports

Matt Patricia is brains behind Patriots’ defense

RAFA ALVAREZ FOR THE GLOBE

PHOENIX — It’s pretty safe to assume that Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is the only coach in the NFL with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Or as many around the 40-year-old native of upstate New York like to joke, he’s a rocket scientist.

That fact about Patricia is actually fairly well known, but not much else is. We know he favors wearing a bright red Patriots pullover on the sideline during games, so his players can easily see him if he’s sending in signals. His Patriots cap is almost always turned backwards, a pencil tucked behind his right ear.

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We know he has a rather gnarly beard, and he readily acknowledges he just lets it grow wild, unlike one of his players, Rob Ninkovich, who carefully grooms and oils his.

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But otherwise, Patricia is a bit of a mystery. On his weekly conference calls with New England media, he dutifully stays on Bill Belichick-approved message, rarely lauding his own players individually, and always talking up the next week’s opponent.

So Tuesday on Super Bowl Media Day, we tried to learn a little bit more about Patricia, from his players and fellow coaches, and the man himself.

 Ninkovich said Patricia is relentless, and Patricia approved:

“He’s relentless in trying to put us in the best possible position,” Ninkovich said. “The hours that he puts in — unbelievable, and he’s never satisfied. He’s always trying to push me to be a better football player, and he knows how to push my buttons.”

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Patricia said, “I like that word [relentless]. I think for me, it’s all about work ethic and just trying to get in there and make sure that I do everything that I can to help those guys be productive on the field. That’s really my biggest – I don’t want to say panic – but that’s the thing that drives me the most, is just making sure that I’ve given those guys all the information they need to be prepared to win. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

 Linebackers coach Patrick Graham called Patricia a friend and mentor, and teaching is part of why Patricia turned to coaching:

“I came in as a [quality control coach] under him and he spent a lot of time helping groom me to be able to understand what Bill’s philosophy was,” Graham said. “He was patient with me because I can be a know-it-all sometimes, he had to tell me to shut up sometimes, and he helped me understand the NFL game.”

Patricia said, “I played college football [at RPI, where he was an offensive lineman], I stayed an extra year and started my MBA, so I had coached one year and started my MBA. Got out, did engineering for a couple of years, and then it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be in a cubicle, I didn’t want to be in front of a computer, I didn’t want to be working with numbers, I wanted to be with the players.

“I just thought as a college player, looking at the coaches that I had, and my dad was a coach growing up, just what an influence you could have on young men’s lives, and people in general, and I thought that was great.”

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 Syracuse University helped get Patricia in the door with the Patriots.

‘I didn’t want to be in a cubicle, I didn’t want to be in front of a computer, I didn’t want to be working with numbers, I wanted to be with the players.”

“Very smart guy. Syracuse. So two things,” ex-Orangeman Chandler Jones said. “[Remembering] the first day I met Matty P, I smile because he has the big beard, and I asked who he was and they said, ‘Oh, he’s the defensive coordinator.’

“I enjoy it every day. Coach Patricia he’s in there, he’s working very hard . . . and I really appreciate it.”

Said Patricia, “So I worked my way to Syracuse” – Patricia spent two seasons at Amherst before becoming a three-year graduate assistant at Syracuse – “and there were still a lot of SU connections [with the Patriots]. At the time, Brian Daboll, who’s back with us, he and I played college football against each other, he initially called me, and Ivan Fears is a Syracuse guy, [Scott] Pioli was a Syracuse guy, Mike Woicik . . .

“Very fortunate to have the opportunity to come interview, and was lucky enough to stick around.”

 Patricia functions on very little sleep — as in, what most of us what consider a nap:

“He doesn’t require a lot of sleep. I don’t know exactly how much, I don’t go home with him,” Graham said, laughing.

Patricia said, “Four hours is a good night. I enjoy sleep, there’s just really not a lot of opportunity to get it. It depends, it could be a couple hours, it could be an hour, it could be three. Four hours is nice, but it doesn’t happen all the time.

“It’s more, did we get everything covered, what’s got to be done for tomorrow, what’s going to help these guys win, and not really being able to settle down until that’s all taken care of,” he said.

 Patricia knows how to push his players’ buttons, but one player is apparently his prize pupil:

“We’ve been together a long time now, and he knows how to get me a little bit angry and play to my best,” Ninkovich said. “I guess that’s what a coach is supposed to do, is get his players to play to their best, and he does that.”

Patricia says, “We’ve been around each other long enough where there’s certain things, there’s certain ways I can tweak him a little bit, where I can know he has to perform in a certain way or do things in a certain way. A little bit of that goes on.”

Said Dont’a Hightower, “Most of the time, he just tells me, ‘We need to go, we need a stop, we’ve got to go now, who’s it going to be?’ So whether it’s me or Jamie [Collins] or Ninko or [Darrelle] Revis or Vince [Wilfork], whoever it is, someone will go. He doesn’t push my buttons as much as he pushes Ninko’s.

“Devin [McCourty] is the star. Devin never gets in trouble for anything.” Hightower looked left, to where Ninkovich was. “Ninko! How many times — Devin. He’s the prize pupil. He’s never gotten in trouble.”

Ninkovich, smiling, agreed.

“I’ve been here three years and I’ve never heard Devin get in trouble for anything,” Hightower said.

“He’s the Golden Child,” Ninkovich chimed in.

McCourty laughed off the assertion that he’s Patricia’s star student.

But he added one last adjective when asked about the defensive coordinator: “genius.”

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com.