FOXBOROUGH — When Elandon Roberts reported last week for rookie minicamp, the Patriots assigned the linebacker jersey No. 51.
Perhaps Roberts, a native of Port Arthur, Texas, who spent a year at Morgan State before transferring to Houston, wasn’t completely aware of the significance of that number with respect to the position he plays, and his new employer.
Jerod Mayo, a two-time Pro Bowler and seven-time Patriots captain, had that number from 2008-15. He announced his retirement after last season.
At the conclusion of the rookie minicamp, Roberts had a new number: 52.
“One day I just walked to my locker and it was changed,” Roberts said Thursday, when the Patriots made their defensive rookies available to the media. “I don’t have any problem with the switch. I’m just blessed to have a number.”
The jersey swap means he won’t be forced into the difficult situation of trying to help fill Mayo’s void while also wearing his old number. Roberts wore No. 44 in college, but the only numbers he seems to care about now are the number of tackles and impact plays he can make.
He made plenty of those at Houston, which won the American Athletic Conference last season, then beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl to complete a 13-1 season. The Cougars were ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press poll.
Roberts was a big part of that record-setting season. He led the country with 88 solo tackles, and his 142 total stops led the league, landing him on the all-AAC first team. He had at least 10 tackles in seven games, including the Peach Bowl, and finished with 19 tackles for loss on the season, 6 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.
The jersey number might not match anymore, but those numbers sound like Mayo in his prime.
“Right now, I’m trying to give the Patriots the best player they want, the best asset,” said Roberts. “It’s just working hard right now, being that player that they want.
“Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do. That’s what I’m focused on right now. Whatever the Patriots want, I’ll get it done.”
Roberts was the 214th pick in this year’s draft, going to the Patriots in the sixth round. One reason he slipped was his size; at 6 feet and 235 pounds, Roberts is considerably smaller than current Patriots linebackers Dont’a Hightower (6-3, 265) and Jamie Collins (6-3, 250), and smaller than Mayo was (6-1, 250).
He makes up for that with smarts, aggressiveness, and a nose for the football.
“I think Elandon’s a very instinctive player. You can see that on film,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Whatever his measurables are, he plays to them. He plays fast, he plays strong, and he’s very productive in terms of being around the ball, so we’ll see how all that translates at our level.
“He seems to be a very instinctive player, a smart player, has good awareness, and can find the ball.”
Not that it played any role in the Patriots drafting him, but Roberts showed last season that he can respond well to a new cast of coaches. Tom Herman was hired by Houston before Roberts’s senior season, and the linebacker’s numbers exploded: He went from 26 tackles as a junior to 142, and from one sack to six.
The difference, Roberts said, was opportunity.
“If you’re a clean-slate guy and you’re a practice-first player, then at the end of the day you’ll get an opportunity,” Roberts said. “This is what the NFL and college is mostly about, opportunity. When you get your opportunity, just make the best of it. I did.
“I was just trying to make plays out there to represent the University of Houston well. Now it’s time to get to work with the New England Patriots.”
He won’t have Mayo around to learn from on a daily basis, but Roberts said he’s looking forward to working with and studying Hightower, Collins, and the other veteran linebackers. The group has a new coach; Brian Flores has moved from coaching safeties to linebackers after the departure of Patrick Graham.
It’s a scenario that Roberts flourished under a year ago. He’s eager to get started.
“I’ve been getting to know the whole team, and my rookie class,” said Roberts. “Everyone’s great: The staff is great, trainers, strength and conditioning, our head coach, our position coaches.
“This whole thing that makes the Patriots come together, it’s just been a great experience for me.”
The number change probably isn’t a bad thing, either. One less question to answer, and a chance to create his own identity.
Is Roberts relieved that he won’t have to wear No. 51, one year after Mayo’s retirement?
“I don’t ask questions,” he said. “I’m just glad to be a Patriot.”