Patriots C Dan Connolly excels as fill-in

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 4, 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 and not

even think about 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. ”He stepped up those two weeks and did a fine

job for us. He made a majority of the calls. We couldn’t have asked

anything more of him.”

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 and Marcus Cannon, another rookie, went in at

right tackle.

Somehow, Tom Brady still gets outstanding protection.

”I think it goes back to practice,” Connolly said. ”We don’t

just play five guys in there all the time and don’t rotate. We put

everybody in, different combinations of people, and I think over

the years and through 110 practices through the season it pays off

when we get comfortable playing with any combination of who’s in

there.”

Now there’s a chance Vollmer will play against the Giants.

”There is definitely a possibility,” coach Bill Belichick

said. ”I don’t know if we will know about that until we put him

through the full week of practice. He is definitely making

progress, so he is getting there.”

No matter who plays the offensive line on Sunday, Connolly

expects them to perform well, just as he’s done.

”I’ve played with anybody they could put in there,” he said,

”so I know they’re going to do the job.”