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PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK

Malcom Brown has come a long way in second year

Malcom Brown had one of his best games last Sunday against the Jets.
Malcom Brown had one of his best games last Sunday against the Jets.(BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH — Malcom Brown, a defensive tackle for the Patriots, could be asked to tackle Malcolm Brown, a running back for the Rams, on Sunday.

It gets better. The two Malco(l)m Browns know each other. They were teammates from 2012-14 at the University of Texas.

“We were buds,” Malcom Brown said Thursday.

And if someone’s going to be doing the tackling, be it of Malcolm Brown or Todd Gurley or Benny Cunningham, it’s looking more and more like a task for New England’s second-year tackle.

Fellow tackle Alan Branch may or may not play. He’s appealing a four-game suspension, reportedly for a positive test for marijuana, but could choose to drop his protest to make sure he’ll be available for the playoffs. Brown and Branch have held down the middle of the Patriots’ defense for most of the season, with rookies Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton helping out in spurts.

Now, it may be up to Brown to lead the way. The former Longhorn seems to have taken a sophomore leap and has started all but one game and had a hand in two sacks and 36 tackles this season. He had one of his best games last Sunday, when he was in on seven tackles and overran Jets center Wesley Johnson to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into a pivotal intentional grounding penalty in the fourth quarter.

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“Coming back in just knowing everything and being up to date on things and not having to think before every play about what I have to do,” Brown said. “Even though they’ve told me the play, I still had to, if you’re thinking you’re moving slower, you’re playing slower than you need to play, so it feels real good to know what you’re doing.”

On Wednesday, coach Bill Belichick said that Brown came to the Patriots relatively polished for a rookie, but he has still made solid progress in his second year.

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“He probably started at a little higher point than some guys do, therefore the growth is — I don’t want to say limited — but there’s just a little less space there than guys that start at a much lower point where there’s a lot more space,” said Belichick. “But I think he’s closing that space up. He’s definitely improved this year in terms of his recognition, playing blockers, consistency.”

Brown said he’s relied on Branch as a teacher.

“Everything that he can tell me that can help me I always listen to it and try to put it in my own way of playing,” said Brown. “He teaches me a lot of things about motion and things like that, a lot of little stuff on the field that can help me be that much better. Just like with technique and things I see on plays and do on plays, we’ll watch the film and he’ll point it out to me and tell me something I could have done different or something I could have done better on that play.”

Breaking news

In preparation for the 2001 team reunion at halftime Sunday, some former Patriots have been making the rounds with reporters. On Thursday, former safety Lawyer Milloy was on a conference call when something odd happened.

Milloy was in the middle of remembering the Snow Bowl against the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs and talking about the Tuck Rule when the sound of a broadcast reporting news of Rob Gronkowski’s back surgery started coming clearly through the phone lines. Milloy gave a very honest reaction.

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“It was a tough, tough game,” Milloy was saying of the Snow Bowl. “Ultimately, obviously, with the game coming to the end, we all saw [Tom Brady] get hit, I witnessed it, to see him fumble the ball and just like most of the rest of the defense I think all of us were . . . ”

At that point, the sound cut him off.

“We have some breaking news involving the New England Patriots. ESPN just reporting moments ago that Rob Gronkowski will have back surgery as of Friday and will be out the remainder of the season,” an announcer’s voice said.

Another voice chimed in: “Apparently sources are saying this could be a herniated disk” before the sound was cut off.

Milloy was confused. “Is this a joke?” he asked.

“Sorry about that, guys, I don’t know what that was,” said Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James over the phone.

“Aw, [expletive], man,” Milloy said. “That’s not good. OK. I don’t know where I was but I think that’s a little more important.”

Back at work

Practice regained some of its star power when Brady (knee), Julian Edelman (foot), and Martellus Bennett (shoulder/ankle) all returned after not taking part in Wednesday’s workout and being limited Thursday.

Defensive end Trey Flowers popped up on the report with a shin injury and was limited. Wide receiver Chris Hogan (back) and special teamer Matthew Slater (foot) remained limited.

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Special teamer Nate Ebner is still in the concussion protocol and missed his second straight practice, as did safety Jordan Richards (knee). Hamilton missed practice because of illness.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.