New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner's chances of representing the USA Sevens side at the Rio Olympics have improved following his performance in Singapore, and coach Mike Friday has revealed the Super Bowl winner has brought clarity to their on-field communication.
Ebner has taken a leave of absence from his Patriots duties to pursue his dream of playing for the USA in Rugby Sevens at the Summer Games, and he is no stranger to the sport having played for the USA side prior to being drafted into the NFL in 2012.
When Ebner told Friday of his plans to try and force his way into contention for Rio 2016, the USA coach rated his chances as "10 or 20 percent". However, his two recent rugby outings in the Hong Kong 10s and in last weekend's Singapore Sevens have swung the balance in his favour.
"He has a 50:50 chance now [of making the squad for Rio] but if he stays on this trajectory then it's only going one way and that's up," Friday told ESPN soon after the USA Sevens side lost the bowl final at the Singapore leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series.
Ebner impressed Friday in 10s and was then fast-tracked into the Sevens squad for the Hong Kong leg. However, he was kept as an unused substitute, with Friday reluctant to throw him in as his body was still adjusting to the conditioning required for Sevens. But he got his chance in Singapore and featured in all six matches for the USA, scoring two tries against Portugal in the bowl semifinals.
"He did really well in the 10s and showed an awareness to be in the right place defensively, at the breakdown and in attack," Friday said. "He wasn't exposed in Singapore and was strong defensively. He needs to learn how to manipulate space in attack.
"He has surprised me, how quickly he has bedded himself down. It's no mean feat to come in with three weeks training and not look out of place on the world circuit."
Friday is now focusing on improving Ebner's passing technique to ensure he gets the most out of him in attack. "His early catch is on point, how he reaches for the ball early, but we need to work on his passing and make it more efficient and increase the power and pace," Friday added. "He uses his wrists which mean the ball dips on a soft arc rather than a flat pass. We need to adjust his technique so he uses his core strength."
"This isn't a PR stunt, we haven't got time for that." Mike Friday on Nate Ebner chasing his Olympics dream
Away from the technical side of his game, Friday has encouraged Ebner to be more vocal in passing on his experiences from his time with the Patriots and this has had an impact on the way the USA side communicate mid-match.
"When he first came to training, he asked whether we had a 'comms book' and I wasn't sure what he was talking about," Friday said. "At the Patriots they get given a big manual of common on-field language. We didn't have one as, while we operate with a series of common words, I thought the boys knew exactly what they meant.
"When we were analysing the comms in Nate's second week, I asked the team what they thought certain words or slang communication we use mean and they all answered with different definitions.
"It'd be something like when you use 'hit on'. One player thought that meant have a go yourself and another thought it meant carry the ball for two or three steps and then pass. So I thought Nate was on to something with formalising our language so we made sure there was clarity there. That's exactly what I wanted from Nate. From being a newbie in the environment, he'd recognised an area we could improve."
Ebner was used as a versatile forward in Singapore and Friday plans to see how he fares in the centres over the coming weeks before deciding whether he will be in the mix for the Olympics.
"We have Paris and London coming up and we have another tournament in Paris the same week of the London leg of the series," Friday added. "We will have a team in that tournament and we will try and maximise Nate's game time.
"He might stay in Paris for that second competition if we don't feel he'll be a front liner in London as we need to keep him playing.
"I said to Nate there are no guarantees he will make the Olympics squad and he gets that. This isn't a PR stunt, we haven't got time for that. But it would be great for USA rugby if he makes it."