Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

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Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

FOXBORO -- Ryan Wendell is an offensive lineman straight out of central casting. He's six-foot-two and 300 pounds with a beard like Paul Bunyan's and a voice that stirs in his barrel chest and oozes bass.

He's the Patriots center, the anchor in the middle of the line that has helped produce the NFL's most prolific offense. Despite his prototypical look, it was a long time before he finally won a starting job in New England.

"I'm really happy to have a role," Wendell said, thinking back to earlier in his career, "and to have that role be something that I get to go out there every week and play on the field, and do what I can to help the team."

It was a slow climb for the guy his teammates call "Wendy." The Patriots brought him to New England as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2008. In his first two seasons, he was released and signed back onto New England's practice squad three separate times. In 2010, he played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. Last season, he started three games as a backup to a banged-up offensive line.

For four years, he worked as he waited for his chance to be a regular contributor.

"I don't think you ever have too much time to look back, especially when you're preparing for a team like the Bills," Wendell said. "But every guy on this team has a role. And everybody wants that role to be expanded. Everybody wants to do as much as they can to help this team win. I've been happy about what my role has been here, but I've always wanted it to expand. So the fact that it has, has been great. I've really enjoyed it. I hope that whatever my role is each week, I do my best to help the team win."

After a strong training camp this summer, Wendell was given the difficult task of replacing 10-year veteran Dan Koppen, who was released in August. It was clear that Wendell had the better showing, but he was still a relative unknown outside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Koppen, on the other hand, had started in three Super Bowls.

Given the reins to the position, it didn't get much easier for Wendell. The offensive line was shaky in New England's preseason games, and though he appeared to acquit himself well enough, Wendell was one of a handful under the microscope as the offensive line generated buzz for all the wrong reasons.

Tom Brady was consistently pressured behind a new-look group of lineman. Matt Light had retired. Logan Mankins was hurting, as was Sebastian Vollmer. Questions lingered as to whether or not the new group would be up to snuff.

But the Patriots coaching staff was confident things would change. They knew that they had talent on the line. And they knew that Wendell could handle things in the middle.

Now they're reaping the benefits of keeping him there.

"I think clearly the obvious is that Wendell replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said recently. "Thats as tough a decision as weve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when weve asked him to play. Hes done a very good job through the first eight games of the season. Hes all the things we thought he would be.

"Hes very tough, hes very smart, hes a really competitive guy on every down, through every down. Hes a great finisher. Thats why hes here and thats why we kept him as a rookie and kept him around here and thats why this kid is on our roster and thats why hes starting for us, for all those reasons. Its not a comparison, thats just what he is. So yeah, were pleased with the way things have gone there."

So are his teammates. Wendell has always been intelligent -- a Southern California boy, he earned the California Governor's Scholar Share Award in high school -- and his know-how has brought stability to an offensive line that has continuously dealt with moving parts because of injuries. He is the only interior lineman to start each of New England's first eight games.

"When he stepped in this year, he didn't miss a beat," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "He's able to communicate out there and he knows what he's talking about, and he gets everyone directed. I think that's what a good center can do, and I think that's what he's been doing so far this year."

Thomas knows how hard it can be to try to fill the shoes of a Patriots mainstay. With Mankins nursing injuries throughout the course of this season, Thomas has started four games. Like Wendell, he was also somewhat of an NFL long shot. The Patriots interior line is full of them, in fact.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly, like Wendell, was undrafted. He was released once by the Jaguars and once by the Patriots before becoming a regular starter last season. Thomas was a Dolphins sixth-round pick in 2008 who has been released three times in his career by three different teams.

The three of them have never taken the time to sit together and reflect on their roads to NFL relevance, but they know their experiences have allowed them to prove what kind of players they are. They are the kind that Bill Belichick loves, the kind that love football.

"You know you just never forget where you came from," Thomas said, relating Wendell's journey to his own. "You realize why you're in the situation that you are and you just have to embrace it every single time you get a chance to go out there and play because you weren't just given it right off the bat. You had to work for it."

Wendell's work has turned him into a reliable center for an improving offensive line that has only allowed two sacks in the last three games and helped produce the AFC's third leading rusher in Stevan Ridley.

The positive buzz surrounding the group now probably isn't enough to balance out the negative it heard during the preseason, but for Wendell, that's fine.

Even in his attitude, he is a prototypical trench-dweller, cast perfectly for the role he's loved since he first put on pads as a freshman at Diamond Bar High School 12 years ago.

"I'm an offensive lineman," he said, smiling. "What we like the best is when people aren't talking about us. That's our goal. When we do our job right, people shouldn't be talking about us."

CSN's Buckets List: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

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CSN's Buckets List: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Each Monday through the Final Four, our own Robbie Buckets -- known in some circles as Rob Snyder, associate producer at CSN -- will take a look at the world of college basketball: Games to watch each week, players who might be on the Celtics' radar come draft time, what's going on locally . . . and, of course, power rankings (which will eventually morph into bracketology). Enjoy!

After a Saturday for the ages came and went this past weekend, it's clear offensive efficiency is ruling the college basketball world. Villanova, UCLA, Creighton, Indiana, UNC, Kentucky, and a slew of other teams are shooting the lights out early in the season. In a rare switch, offensive efficiency is proving more valuable than defensive efficiency early on this year. We aren't used to seeing shooting quite like this, but it makes for great basketball watching. We also have some surprise teams making big moves in the rankings, and I'm sure the shake-ups will keep coming week-by-week with no slowing down.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova (8-0) - The defending champs spent a nice week destroying fellow Big 5 teams. On top of that, the Wildcats watched Kentucky fall (more on that later), which moves them up to the top spot. I can make a great case for the two teams behind them to be ahead, but I'll reward a defending champion going undefeated every day of the week.

2. Baylor (8-0) - SURPRISE! The Bears just keep on winning against really good competition. Scott Drew's club has now beaten four top 25 teams in Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and, most recently, Xavier. (I understand it's likely two of those teams won't be ranked this week, but they're still really good.)  This is the most impressive early season resume in a long time.

3. UCLA (9-0) - It's one thing to put up massive offensive numbers against lowly competition. It's a completely different thing when you go into Rupp Arena and put up 97 points against Kentucky. Lonzo Ball had a rough go in the first half but he was helped by fellow freshman T.J. Leaf, who is absolutely balling.

4. Kentucky (7-1) - I'm keeping the Wildcats right here because I still saw a lot I liked in the loss to UCLA. Mainly, I think De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk make up the best backcourt in the country. This team still has so much room to grow.

5. Kansas (7-1) - Shockingly, Kansas has decided to go with a small, four-guard lineup as of late.  The Jayhawks have benched Landen Lucas and it's working having Lagerald Vick join Graham, Mason and Jackson in the backcourt. I applaud Bill Self for the outside-the-box thinking.

6. Duke (8-1) - Great to finally see the Blue Devils get some of their freshman back, albeit against Maine. The Dukies will probably shoot further up the power rankings next week as they get their fresh legs under them. As of now, I'm still slightly underwhelmed by the overall product (which is being harsh), but I love what I'm seeing from Luke Kennard who -- shhhhhhh -- is a better overall player than Grayson Allen.

7. Gonzaga (8-0) - They haven't missed a beat, putting away frisky Arizona on Saturday.  The Dogs are now on cruise control and have a real shot at being the last undefeated team standing this season.

8. Creighton (8-0) - Speaking of undefeated, the Bluejays of Omaha are maybe the hottest offensive team in the country, led by three of the best guards in all of college basketball.  (They may even be better than Kentucky's backcourt.)  Creighton will be a force in the Big East this year.

9. Indiana (7-1) - The hardest thing about doing rankings is Jekyll-and-Hyde teams like the Hoosiers. What can you say about a team that beat Kansas, lost to Fort Wayne, and then rebounded with a win over North Carolina? You rank them 9. That's what you do.

10. North Carolina (7-1) - Speaking of North Carolina, last week I thought the Tar Heels were the hottest team in college hoops and now they're licking their wounds after being beaten pretty good by Indiana. They're still extremely well-rounded, and should still be in the Top 5 conversation later in the year.

11. Virginia (7-1) - For the first time in years, the Cavaliers lost a home non-conference game. The slugfest with West Virginia went as expected as the two unique defenses went at each other.  Hard to drop UVA too far, as they still boast the nation's second-best defense.

12. Butler (8-0) - Hard to believe we're into December and still have three undefeated Big East teams and none of them are Xavier. Butler has looked really balanced this year in wins over Arizona and Utah. I would still like to see more scoring from the guards.

13. Louisville (7-1) - The Cardinals successfully rebounded from a not-bad-at-all loss to Baylor and took down Purdue in a game they tried very hard to lose. Louisville's biggest issue is offensive consistency, which has grinded to a halt at times this season. Defensively, however, there are no issues.

14. Xavier (7-1) - Hey, look, it's another team that lost to Baylor.  The loss isn't necessarily bad, but the way X is playing hasn't been totally solid.  They're getting almost all of their offense from three players, and their depth hasn't been great. They will still be a really good team, but are starting to look less like a dark horse Final Four team.

15. West Virginia (6-1) - What a win for WVU in Charlottesville. Huggy Bear's press continues to give opponents problems and keeps the Mountaineers in games even when they aren't hitting their shots.  They were 25th in the AP poll last week, but are now No. 9 in kenpom.  Expect a move once the pollsters read this column.

LOCAL FLAVOR 

Providence - What a week for the Friars.  They took out previously ranked in-state rivals Rhode Island and are now 6-2 with a quality win.  Rodney Bullock is carrying the scoring load, and I have to say I'm very surprised by the development of Kyron Cartwright. His ball-handling and passing have been phenomenal. Ed Cooley is doing wonders with this group..

Rhode Island - Speaking of the Rams, they'll be just fine. A true road loss (albeit still in-state) is nothing to worry about. Now they'll hope Providence becomes a Top 50, or at the very least Top 100, RPI team, and the loss won't even look bad. What Rhody does need to worry about is finding a way to beat good teams. They now have three losses -- to Duke, Valpo (road), and Providence (road). They do have a quality win over a very good Cincinnati team, so they'll just need to take care of conference play and find a way to get a little more from their bench.

WHAT TO WATCH THIS WEEK

  • Tuesday December 6: Florida vs Duke (at Madison Square Garden)
  • Saturday December 10: Villanova vs Notre Dame (Prudential Center); Michigan at UCLA

POTENTIAL FUTURE CELTICS TO WATCH

Jayson Tatum - Duke finally has a couple of its freshman back, and this is the guy to watch. I was pumped about him prior to the season because he's a 6-foot-7 wing player who does everything effortlessly. Tatum had 10 points and 8 rebounds in his opener despite being very rusty. It's only up from here.

De'Aaron Fox - Kentucky's point guard is the real deal and is so fun to watch.  He's a 6-6 bean stalk, so he doesn't necessarily look like a point guard . . . until you see him pass.  Fox can also get to the rim and play suffocating 'D'.  He's still working on his jump shot, but it's coming along.  NBA teams will drool over this guy.

Follow me on Twitter @RobbieBuckets for college hoops musings and off-the-cuff sports takes.

Monday, Dec. 5: Craig Cunningham's recovery

Monday, Dec. 5: Craig Cunningham's recovery

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while fully getting in the holiday spirit by getting the family Christmas tree this week.

*Very good and very sobering story about Craig Cunningham’s slow recovery, and his large support system with the AHL Roadrunners team he is captaining this season. It sounds like it might be a bit of a long road for him, so he and his family will need that support from those around him.

*Tyler Seguin has his shot back, and that’s great news for the Dallas Stars power play. So is that like Stella getting her groove back?

*A KHL player went into a sliding dab formation in order to celebrate a goal on the ice, and we salute him for that.

*The Maple Leafs are trying to fortify their backup goaltending situation after waiving Jhonas Enroth this week.

*Interesting Bob McKenzie piece about a young man that’s hoping to challenge conventional thinking in the hockey coaching ranks.

*TSN’s Scott Cullen takes a look at Winnipeg rookie Patrik Laine’s shooting skills as part of his “Statistically Speaking” column.

*For something completely different: the hits just keep on coming for Netflix as they’re going to double their TV series output over the next year.