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AP photo by Michael Dwyer / From left, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, first-round draft pick Cole Strange and team president Jonathan Kraft pose for pictures Friday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Strange was in New England less than 24 hours after becoming the first player in UTC football history selected in the first round of an NFL draft.

Can you tell us a fun fact about yourself?

That was one of the questions asked of former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offensive lineman Cole Strange on Friday during his first interview session with New England media, after the Patriots selected him late Thursday night in the opening round of the NFL draft.

Replied Strange: "I'm not one of those guys who can do it real fast, but I can solve a Rubik's Cube."

If anything beyond his immense football skills may have sold the Patriots on Strange, it might be that. Not so much being able to solve the Rubik's Cube itself, though that might win any player a few locker room bets should he possess that skill. But rather the fact that Strange is seen as a quick study, which has long been a priority for New England head coach Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowl rings with players who have long been allergic to stupid mistakes.

Perhaps that's why Matt Groh, the team's director of player personnel, quickly labeled Strange "really smart" as he explained the organization's reasoning for shocking the rest of the league by selecting the former Moc with the 29th overall pick.

Added Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Friday as he referenced Strange's 3.7 GPA, thickly laying on the local accent for dramatic effect: "As we say in New England, he has 'smotts.'"

Yet even UTC coach Rusty Wright wasn't sure anyone would be smart enough to take Strange on the draft's opening night — which is reserved for the first round — after most projections had him going in the third round at the earliest.

"I'd been watching the Braves," Wright said Friday. "When it ended, I switched over to the draft. I didn't have to wait long. I just sat there for 30 minutes after he was picked, thinking about how his life has changed forever. No matter what happens from here, he'll always be a first-round draft pick."

Wright will tell you the scouts began to take more than a casual interest in Strange after last September's game at Kentucky.

The Mocs ultimately lost that one 28-23 after leading for much of the second half, but Strange dominated a veteran Wildcats defensive line for much of the afternoon.

"The calls from scouts really picked up after that," Wright said. "Then when Cole went to the Senior Bowl and played center, the interest really took off. They knew he could play guard, but when they know you can play two spots — center and guard — you become that much more valuable."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright, left, shakes hands with senior Cole Strange after practice on Nov. 16 at Scrappy Moore Field. Wright announced that Strange had been chosen to play in the Senior Bowl, and the offensive lineman later used that week in Mobile, Ala., and his time at the NFL combine in Indianapolis to impress scouts on his way to becoming a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.

Not that it was only his versatility that appealed to the Patriots as they attempt to build a rock-solid offensive line to protect former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in his second year in the league.

"He's almost 6-5, 300 pounds, and runs sub-5 seconds in the 40," Groh said. "There's not a lot of humans out there that are doing that, or benched 225 (pounds) 31 times. This is a really big, strong, tough, athletic guy. If you value toughness, which we do, you value guys like Cole Strange."

Though Wright never spoke directly to Belichick, he often heard from New England's scouts as draft day approached.

Clearly, the Patriots' head coach liked what the scouts told him.

"He's long, he's athletic. He's physically tough. He's an aggressive player," Belichick told the media after Strange's selection. "I think he has a good combination of skills, run and pass, movement, length, strength, again, all of which will hopefully get better, like with any player coming from college to the National Football League."

Wright believes having Strange become the first Moc ever taken in the first round will, hopefully, make UTC better through future recruiting.

"It's huge," Wright said. "A big night for Cole and his family. A big night for us, too. Biggest thing is, if you can play, they'll find you. But this is Cole's day. He's such a genuine person. He's been such a role model for so many others. Seeing him rewarded for all his hard work is what this is all about. That's why we do what we do."

Strange already knows what he intends to do as a rookie lineman playing for the most decorated coach in NFL history.

"Whatever Coach Belichick tells me to do," he said. "Whatever I can do to help us win. Getting drafted was a dream come true. But there's a lot of work to do."

As he proved time and time again at UTC, Strange has never been afraid to put in the work.

Which leads us back to something else his college coach said Friday morning about Strange making his way to the NFL.

"Nobody belongs," Wright noted, "more than Cole does."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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