One of the things the Patriots have always valued in their offensive linemen is versatility, and this year is no different. New England has been able to run out several offensive linemen who have experience at multiple positions — that has allowed the coaching staff to do some mixing and matching while it tries to find the best combination for an offensive line that’s struggling over the course of the first three games.
The fact that Dan Connolly was limited at practice this week with what the team is calling a foo injury means that rookie Bryan Stork and veteran Ryan Wendell might be doing some shuffling. Stork, who stepped in at center in the late stages of last week’s win over the Raiders, arrives at the NFL level with a peerless resume, having played some guard before moving to the pivot, where he eventually won the Rimington Award last year as college football’s best center. A captain and three-year starter at Florida State, he was a part of last season’s national championship team.
“[He] played obviously in a good program down there, played for a real good coach ‘ [Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Line] Coach [Rick] Trickett,” Belichick said Saturday. “He was strong; he was part of the Florida State workout the day we were there. He’s an athletic kid that runs fairly well. He’s a smart football player. He’s into football.
“He’s really a football guy; loves football, works really hard at football. He wants to be a football player and he’s dedicated himself to it; all those qualities that you love in any player but especially an offensive linemen. He’s got strength; he’s got a good frame for a center. He’s got good length and height. He played in a good program, he’s well coached, pretty good fundamental player. I thought he was as good as any center that we saw this year, the last couple years.”
A rookie center not only has the challenge of getting in sync with the rest of the line, but developing a relationship with the quarterback. But Belichick said Saturday that’s not the biggest challenge.
“I would say the passing game in general I think is the biggest change for the offensive line,” Belichick said when asked about rookie adjustments. “It’s more for the center than for the other positions relative to the amount of variables and the communication with the quarterback and then the cadence and actual timing and delivery of the snap and so forth.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy to play offensive line in this league and it’s not easy to play center and it’s not easy to play center as a rookie.”
As for Wendell, he made his bones the last few seasons as the starting center, but at the same time, he does have some experience working at guard. On Saturday, Belichick certainly sounded like he would trust Wendell if he needed to make a move to guard.
“He’s played both for us,” Belichick said of Wendell, who has fundamentally been the starting center in New England since 2012. “Ryan’s a really smart player. He’s one of the smartest players that we have, that we’ve had. He really understands everything that we’re doing, including all the communication with the quarterback and so forth.”
Belichick acknowledged that the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Wendell is a little undersized for the center position, but is able to make up for it with his intelligence and technique. Belichick credited his pal and Wendell’s former college coach Pat Hill from Fresno State for giving that to him.
“He’s as smart and tough a player as you would want,” Belichick said. “He’s a little limited I’d say overall with his size and his athletic skill set but he’s worked on that. He’s very strong in the weight room and he has good playing strength.
“He has good leverage. Part of that is because of his height but he has good leverage. He’s a good technique player who was well coached in college with Pat Hill at Fresno [State]. He’s certainly improved on that since he’s been here. He’s a guy that just started [here] but a little better, a little better, a little better and just did everything a little bit better ‘ technique, athleticism, quickness, explosion, strength, experience and just kept getting better.”