FOXBORO — Ask Bob Marken what he likes the most about Nate Solder, and it’s not his athletic prowess.
Marken, who coached Solder at Buena Vista High School in Colorado, recalls an incident involving the offensive tackle at the end of his collegiate career in which he went from redshirt freshman to the first consensus All-American in Colorado University history.
“At the end of his college career, he wrote letters to the Denver Post and to the local paper here thanking people for the support they gave him,” recalled Marken shortly after the Patriots made Solder the No. 17 overall pick in the draft Thursday night. “It was really neat.
“But that’s the kind of person he is. He’ll be a great community member for the people of New England. He’ll connect really well there. He’s a guy that’s easy to root for.”
Solder will get that chance to connect starting this week, as the Patriots made him the first offensive tackle drafted in the first round since Bill Belichick took over in New England and the first tackle taken in the first round by the franchise in 20 years.
“Nate has been a solid player for Colorado,” said Belichick after the end of the first round on Thursday night. “Certainly there are a lot of things that he’ll need to do to improve, but I feel like he’s a good, talented guy, a hard-working kid, and if he can keep doing that, then I think he’ll be able to contribute for us, and we’ll work him at left tackle.”
Solder, who is set to arrive in Foxboro early Friday, brings an impressive resume, having carved out a reputation as one of the most durable players in all of college football the last few seasons. As a senior, the 6-foot-8, 319-pounders’ 94.3 percent grade for blocking consistency was the best by a Colorado offensive lineman since Andre Gurode in 2001, as he played in all 847 snaps. He led the nation with 142 knockdowns, which resulted in 10 touchdown-resulting blocks, as he allowed only one sack and three pressures in 12 games.
In all, he performed in 2,540 out of a possible 2,542 plays on offense from the beginning of his sophomore season through the end of his senior campaign.
The two missed snaps? According to Solder, they were in end-of-game situations.
“I think one of the backups was in there just to kneel the ball,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s funny when they told me I missed two snaps — I had to think about what the heck happened because I don’t remember missing those two snaps.
“I’m extremely proud of my play and things, but it’s a lot of hard work too,” Solder added when questioned about his durability. “Sometimes, you don’t control when freak things happen, so I’ve been blessed as well.”
That includes 1,400 snaps in pass protection, as he limited his opponents to just five quarterback sacks in the span. After allowing 14 quarterback pressures as a sophomore, he was charged with just seven more during the course of the next two seasons combined. As a result, he was the first-ever offensive tackle from Colorado to earn consensus All-American honors.
It was a long way to All-America status — as a high schooler, Solder was no athletic prodigy. Marken recalls having to convince Solder that he was something special.
“He just saw himself as a normal kid,” Marken said. “[But] I would say that I knew he was special when I saw him working out in the weight room — that made it clear to me, to see someone of his size and height able to handle himself that smoothly, with that footwork, that really stood out to me. But we had a really good team his senior year — he wasn’t the MVP of his high school team his senior year. However, I always thought he had a chance to be a great Division I football player.”
According to Marken, it took a while for Solder to grow into his role of world-class tackle. In fact, he initially flirted with the idea of playing Division I college basketball — Marken said Dartmouth was one of a few teams who drew his interest.
“I just sat down with him at the end of his junior year in high school and convinced him to go to some football camps,” remembered Marken. “I think he eventually saw the light when he had one or two Division I basketball teams wanting him and 15 or 20 Division I football teams.”
He was initially recruited to Colorado as a tight end, but made the switch to left tackle in the spring of 2008 after packing on over 30 pounds of bulk between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“My coaches came to me and said, ‘You’d be an all right tight end but you’d be an even better tackle,’” Solder remembered. “I’ve always wanted to be to be great, so that’s why I moved to tackle. It’s been a process. I have a lot to learn, and that’s a huge reason that I’m happy that Bill Belichick and [New England offensive line coach Dante] Scarnecchia will be coaching me.”
“I think you can definitely see Nate’s athleticism,” Belichick said. “I don’t think that’s that unusual. I think there are a lot of tackles — not a lot, but there are certainly a number of tackles who started off at tight end and kind of grew into the position.
“But you know, Nate was a three-sport athlete in high school, so you get some idea of his athletic ability there. And certainly when you watch him play, you watch him pull, you watch him run, you watch his athleticism, for a big guy, he moves well. He’s pretty light on his feet.”
Solder had an interesting path to Foxboro. He did not come to Gillette Stadium for an official visit — he said Thursday night it was cancelled shortly before he was scheduled to fly into New England — and the Patriots came out to work him out on Monday. At that workout, he was put through his paces by Scarnecchia. Ultimately, that meeting (as well as a scouting report from former UC strength & conditioning coach Moses Cabrera, who was recently hired as the assistant S&C coach by New England) was enough to convince both Solder and the Patriots they were a good match.
“It’s not like he was any big secret. We’ve done a lot of work on him,” Belichick said. “Our scouts have seen him, and just the way it worked out in scheduling the coaches and so forth — Colorado isn’t really on the way to much, so Dante just didn’t get there and that’s when he got there, at the end of the process.”
“He’s an unbelievable coach, one of the best in the NFL, and that was completely obvious when I met with him. I look forward to the opportunity to play for him,” Solder said of Scarnecchia. “I have a lot to work on and the great thing about that is I’m a coachable player, and coach Scarnecchia and coach Belichick are great to play for.”
“He’s really, really excited about going to the Patriots,” said Marken, who spoke with Solder shortly after the pick was made. “He just felt it was a real match after he met with [Scarnecchia] earlier in the week. It just seems like he’ll fit really good there. It’s an organization that’s had a lot of success. He’s really a team guy — he’ll fit in. He was at home tonight with his family because that’s the kind of guy he is. He chose to stay with his family — that’s just who he is.”
Solder enters a New England offensive line that is going through some turnover. Veteran left tackle Matt Light is a free agent, while fellow tackle Nick Kaczur is also reportedly facing an uncertain future. In addition, veteran guard Stephen Neal announced his retirement. As a result, Solder has an opportunity to step in and make an immediate mark.
When he was asked about a possible positional battle with either Light — who has been New England’s starting left tackle consistently over the last 10 years — or Vollmer, who has quickly established himself as one of the best young tackles in the AFC, Solder was deferential.
“Well, I have all the respect in the world for those guys. I know this — competition makes everyone better. That will be a great opportunity,” said Solder, who said he has never played right tackle, only left. “That’s my mentality. I earn everything I get.”