FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity.
Under the best of circumstances, the New England Patriots’ offensive line was going to be reshuffled this season after starting left tackle Matt Light announced his retirement in the spring.
Then came a knee injury to All-Pro guard Logan Mankins that has kept him off the field in the early days of training camp and Sebastian Vollmer’s ongoing back woes that have also sidelined the fourth-year tackle.
So the early focus has been on second-year tackle Nate Solder, who is expected to take over Light’s duties in keeping quarterback Tom Brady’s jersey clean, while second-year pro Marcus Cannon and others have gotten work at right tackle.
Veteran Brian Waters, a standout guard last season, has yet to report to camp and center Dan Koppen is returning from an injury that kept him out almost all of last season.
“It’s been, what a year? It’s still coming back to me in some ways,” said Koppen.
It all adds up to a bit of chaos, but when it comes to putting together an effective offensive line, coach Bill Belichick has a motto: In Scarnecchia, we trust.
Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, 64, is in his 29th season with the Pats and 43rd as a coach, his 14th working with New England’s offensive line.
“He’s awesome,” said Belichick. “Dante’s a great coach, on every level. He’s real good with ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’. 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 (Scarnecchia) raises his voice from time to time, but he hasn’t had to give us that much yet,” said offensive lineman Donald Thomas. “He gets on us, though, but he wants it right, so you can’t get mad at him.”
Thomas said Scarnecchia has great resolve and never gets rattled, and that transfers to the players.
“When somebody goes down and there’s a new lineup, he has complete faith in all of us.”
Last season, Koppen was lost in the first game of the season and the team ended up using four players at the position. While the loss of a veteran starter hurt, it had its silver lining.
“We ended up with four different players starting at center over the course of the season,” said Belichick. “By the end of the season, we felt like we had four guys that could play the position rather than we knew for sure we had one, but we were really confident that we had four by the end of the year.”
Even with the losses both permanent and temporary, there is experienced depth and flexibility that makes Scarnecchia’s job a bit easier. Cannon underwent several months of treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before finally being activated in November and playing in seven games. He was rewarded with the NFL’s Ed Block Courage Award for his inspirational return to action and has been seeing plenty of reps at right tackle with Vollmer out.
“He’s improved so many things from where he was at the end of the season because he just didn’t have that base to build on last year,” said Belichick. “I would say he’s way ahead of where he was last year.”
Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald and Dan Connolly were three of the fill-ins at center and have seen extensive action all along the line. Thomas got a shot late last season and free-agent pickup Robert Gallery can play both tackle and guard.
NOTES: The Patriots announced the signing of rookie free agent OL Derek Dennis of Temple, who was released by the Miami Dolphins a week ago. … There was a spirited scuffle between Solder and LB Brandon Spikes at Wednesday night’s practice. “It’s a very competitive camp and it’s part of football,” said Belichick, who wouldn’t comment on the fierceness of the battle but did say “I’ve seen worse.” Belichick said he would be “the last one” to try and break up a fight. “They’d probably come after me,” he cracked . WRs Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch left practice early . The NFL is expected to assign replacement officials to call penalties during the Patriots’ two shared practices with the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 7 and 8. The NFL and its regular officials have not reached agreement on a new contract.