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Youth hasn't slowed Patriots rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez

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Growing up in Bristol, Conn., Aaron Hernandez was an avid Patriots fan -- until 2001, when Tom Brady took over.

"I was a huge Drew Bledsoe fan," he says. "I actually stopped liking the Patriots when Brady took over."

Nine years later, it certainly seems as if he's forgiven Brady for supplanting his childhood idol. The two have formed a dynamic tandem, and the rookie has quickly become one of New England's leading receivers with 444 yards through its 8-2 start. A mere seven games into his career, he's already developing a reputation as the latest Belichick draft-day plunder.

Undersized for a tight end at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Hernandez compensates with his crisp route-running abilities. Couple that with his speed -- he runs a 4.58 40 -- and he creates a mismatch with most NFL linebackers. He's provided Brady with a reliable tight end option to replace Benjamin Watson, who signed with the Browns during the offseason. His talent also makes it easy to forget that at 21 (his birthday was Nov. 6), he's the youngest player on any NFL roster.

His precocious transition to the league has been made easier by observing veterans like Brady and Wes Welker, players he tries to emulate in his daily routines. One teacher, however, is noticeably absent -- Randy Moss.

PHOTO GALLERY: Get to know Aaron Hernandez

"I was a little upset that he did leave because he helped me with a lot," Hernandez says. "[Moss is] one of the best receivers to play the game, so giving me the information that got him there definitely would have helped me throughout my career."

The youngster will be counted on to make up for some of Moss's production, a task that's equally as difficult as it sounds. Moss compiled an astounding 3,795 yards and 47 touchdowns from 2007-09, totals that New England is actively looking to find elsewhere. On a roster loaded with young receivers, Hernandez may prove to be the most viable threat.

He showcased his potential during his junior year at Florida, hauling in 68 receptions for 850 yards en route to the Gators' national championship. After earning the John Mackey Award for the most outstanding tight end in the nation, he bolted for the NFL Draft.

"I felt like it was time to take that step and move on," he says. "So far it's worked out pretty well."

Hernandez originally received flack for abandoning Florida, with scouts citing his lack of size and underdeveloped blocking skills as a reason to stay. After being questioned for "off-the-field issues," he slipped to the fourth round (113th overall), though he has no regrets about his decision to leave.

He also couldn't be happier about where he ended up. Belichick and Urban Meyer share similarly strict coaching styles, lending familiarity to what can be an overwhelming rookie experience. He's meshed surprisingly well to Brady's pure-passing system, an approach that couldn't be more different than Tim Tebow's run-and-gun. He's become an instant fan-favorite in Foxboro; something that was never more evident than in the second quarter of last Sunday's game against the Colts.

He lined up to the right, breaking across the middle to corral a Brady strike before lunging into the end zone. The eight yard score put the Pats up 14-0. Gillette Stadium erupted in cheers.

Best of all, though, Hernandez is relishing his homecoming to New England. He nearly forewent his tenure with the Gators to play college ball for nearby UConn, where his brother, D.J., was quarterback. His long-awaited return is off to an enviable start.

"I'm so close to my family, so close to home," he says. "It's a dream come true."