FOXBOROUGH — Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are on the shelf, with no timetable for their returns. Brian Waters hasn’t reported to the team. Matt Light is retired.
The Patriots’ offensive line, a place that has seen so much stability over the last decade or so, looks very different these days, changing from day to day and sometimes series to series.
With Light now yakking on television and Vollmer rehabbing a back injury, second-year tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have been manning the left and right ends of the line, respectively.
The frequent shuffling has been in the interior. Dan Connolly, who signed a multiyear extension to be the presumed starter at center, has again showed his versatility, taking the majority of his snaps at guard. Free agent pickup Robert Gallery has also seen time at both guard spots, Ryan Wendell has taken snaps at guard and center with the first unit, and Dan Koppen has spent time as the first-team center.
At the center of all the changes is the constant: Dante Scarnecchia. New England’s offensive line guru and assistant head coach is so good he’s worked with six Patriots head coaches, from Ron Meyer through Bill Belichick, with just a two-year stint in Indianapolis (1989-90) breaking up his three-decade affiliation with the franchise.
In his 14 seasons overseeing the offensive line, he’s tutored first-round picks Mankins and Solder and crafted them into standouts (or a budding one, as Solder is perceived), and molded undrafted or castoff players such as Stephen Neal, Joe Andruzzi, and Russ Hochstein into solid starters and respected backups.
Despite all the changes, having Scarnecchia means there is no need to worry.
“He’s awesome. He’s awesome,” said Belichick, who doesn’t throw that word around too often. “Dante’s a great coach, on every level. He’s real good with X’s and O’s. He does a great job with the veteran players. He’s brought along and developed so many of our young players, rookie players, draft choices, free agents; taken guys off the practice squad and built them into starters or contributors on the line. He’s invaluable.
“I think not only myself, but a lot of other people on the staff as well, other coaching staff members, rely on him for advice or ask him questions, take advantage of his experience. He’s had not only experience on the offensive line, but he’s coached special teams, he’s coached defense. He’s really got a great breadth in his coaching career and experience level as well as great proficiency in the offensive line and how well he’s done with that group since I’ve been here and before that. He does a tremendous job.”
Scarnecchia doesn’t often chat with reporters, but it isn’t hard to get others to open up about the 64-year-old, who is often spotted running with his players during warm-ups.
He also won’t hesitate to give them a very loud undressing when they’ve done something wrong, but that is tempered with an ability to say “good job” when it’s been earned.
“He’s just very demanding. He demands a lot of effort, he demands great technique, and he really doesn’t accept anything else,” Koppen said. “As long as guys are here working and getting reps and doing the things that we’re supposed to do to get better, he’s happy, but he’s a hard man to keep happy. Especially with a lot of guys moving in and out there’s a lot of moving parts, but that’s just part of the game right now, so you just deal with it and get comfortable with the guys next to you.”
That’s been a theme of training camp for linemen, working with a variety of players. The Patriots have long given players snaps at different positions with an eye toward emergency situations, but it may be at an all-time high through the first week of this camp.
“When we come out here to practice, we all play different positions,” Connolly said. “It’s just that — every day, doing something different, being in different situations, getting us ready for whatever we might face come Sunday.”
“[Scarnecchia] has great resolve and he never gets rattled, no matter what happens out there,” said guard Donald Thomas. “If somebody goes down or there’s a new lineup, he has complete faith in all of us, and I think that’s what really keeps us calm. He has that much faith in us and we have a lot of faith in each other and we can go out there and just play ball.”
Just as importantly, the man the linemen protect, Tom Brady, trusts that Scarnecchia will have his players ready.
“Those guys work their tails off and there are very high expectations from Scar and from Coach Belichick,” Brady said. “You have to have a good offensive line to win football games. We’ve had one since I got here, and I have a lot of confidence in those guys, whoever is in there.”