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Patriots’ O-lineman warms up to spotlight

Patriots’ O-lineman warms up to spotlight

Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 7:00 pm

By HOWARD ULMAN
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dan Connolly barely gets noticed when he does his best work, a 313-pound center surrounded by wide bodies trying to control the line of scrimmage.
It took just one play, though, lasting perhaps 10 seconds, to put him in a spotlight players his size almost never enter. And that led to his tongue-in-cheek comment about what he would do if he weren’t an offensive lineman.
“Kick returner, right?” Connolly said with a laugh Monday after the New England Patriots’ first practice for the Super Bowl against the New York Giants on Sunday.
Late last season, he was near the front of the return team when Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, wanting to keep the ball from Brandon Tate, kicked a low drive short.
Connolly fielded it on two bounces at the 25-yard line and clutched it to his stomach with two hands. He made it all the way to the Packers four, swerving, stiff-arming and speeding downfield. His 71-yard kickoff return was the longest by a lineman in NFL history. It set up Tom Brady’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez that cut the Patriots deficit to 17-14. They won 31-27.
Now he’s filling in again, although at a position he’s more familiar with. When nine-year starter Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee in the season opener, Connolly stepped in at center and the line was just as solid.
He credited Dante Scarnecchia, a Patriots assistant since 1991 and offensive line coach since 1999, with easing his transition from guard, his primary position the past two seasons.
“It was probably something he’s been working on for years,” said Connolly, who will face the Giants aggressive pass rush. “When I was needed I was able to just step in and do it. I think he just prepared me a long time ago to be ready.”
Connolly was on the Patriots practice squad throughout the 2007 season after signing before the second game and didn’t play in the 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
After Koppen was hurt this season, Connolly started nine games then was sidelined with a groin injury. Ryan Wendell stepped in for the next one but injured his calf. Then it was Nick McDonald’s turn, starting two games before Wendell came back for one until Connolly was ready again.
“Nick, when he was in there, did a great job,” left guard Logan Mankins said.
The Patriots have had three players starting with them for the first time on the offensive line most of the season.
Brian Waters was signed after 11 years with Kansas City to replace the retired Stephen Neal at right guard. Rookie first-round pick Nate Solder started 11 regular-season and two playoff games at right tackle, while Sebastian Vollmer sat out with back and foot injuries. Then there are the changes at center.
The Patriots also had to scramble in the next to last regular-season game against Miami.
Left tackle Matt Light hurt his ankle in pregame warmups, so Mankins started in his place with Donald Thomas getting the call at left guard. And when Mankins was injured early in the game, Solder moved to left tackle.
Published in The Messenger 1.31.12

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