FOXBORO -- When starting right tackle Marcus Cannon left Sunday night's game between the Patriots and Broncos in the first quarter with an ankle injury, Will Svitek was ready to go. He ended up playing the rest of the game -- 74 snaps -- at right tackle and helping keep quarterback Tom Brady well-protected enough to come back from 24 points down to win in overtime, 34-31.
Now in his ninth professional season, and having had experience as both a starter and backup in his career, Svitek knew that there was always a possibility he would be called upon at a moment's notice.
"I've been around the league a while now so I think I understand how it is," he said. "Any given play you're in there and being the swing guy, which has been my role, at the drop of a hat you could be playing a couple snaps, or you could be playing 80 snaps like it was the other game. You gotta prepare. I prepare every week like I'm a starter. I try to know the game plan because you never know when you'll be in there, and you gotta go in there and the offense can't miss a beat. You may not get the reps that you want during the week, but you gotta be just ready to go."
Svitek has been studying up on every position on the line save for center. Last summer's training camp was the first time he ever got work at either guard spot. In college at Stanford, he played defensive end and tight end and even played on both sides of the ball in a couple of games.
"You only dress seven guys [on the offensive line] so you have to be able to know everything that's the thing," he said. "Position versatility is huge. You gotta know left tackle, right tackle, left guard, right guard. So yeah I've prepared myself for every spot."
Offensive line coach and assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia has played an important role in making sure each Patriots offensive lineman is ready to be thrown in at any spot and in any given situation. For Svitek -- a renaissance man of sorts who has attended NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial programs, at the Harvard Business School, Penn’s Wharton School of Business, Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and Stanford Business School -- the learning experience has been eye-opening.
"He focuses on technique so much and details and he works us hard," Svitek said of Scarnecchia. "He's a great coach. He really knows the fundamentals. He knows the scheme so he's done a really good job with us. I've learned a lot. This is my ninth year and I feel like I'm a rookie again sometimes because I'm learning so many different things technique-wise."
Svitek spent the last four seasons with the Falcons, but was on injured reserve for all of last season after suffering an arm injury. The Patriots signed him in March, where he was thrown into the mix on the offensive line, along with Cannon, as a "swing" player able to play both guard spots and both tackle spots. When starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer suffered a season-ending broken leg, Cannon became the starter and Svitek the all-important "next man up."
"You go in there and there's no excuse to not know your assignments," he said. "You have to go in the game ready to play. 'Next man up' has obviously been a philosophy of coach [Bill] Belichick's all season long. He's really tried to tell his team that, and I think a lot of guys that have done well stepping up on this team with all the injuries."
Svitek has had a remarkable road to the NFL. He was born in communist Czechoslovakia in 1982 and when he was 2 year old, his entire family escaped the country by hiking through the mountains and into Austria. He grew up in California, became an accomplished student and a talented athlete who competed in track and field throwing events as well as in basketball.
He played mainly defensive end in college and flipped over to the offensive side of the ball as a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2005. After a year in NFL Europe to gain more experience, and returned to the Chiefs the following season.
After having to become a spectator due to injury last season, he was excited to get a chance to contribute to the Patriots after working with the team during spring organized team activites and training camp.
"It was definitely good to be playing," he said. "That's what you always want to be doing. I missed last year with a triceps injury, I was on IR. So it was fun to be back out there playing obviously you never want anybody to go down. Obviously it was a big game and I play football so it was fun to be out there with those guys, and most importantly get a W and help those guys win."
"When Marcus went down he stepped in the game against good players and stepped up there and competed well," Belichick said of Svitek. "Not perfect, but he hung in there. We'll see that again this week, we'll see how what's going with him and Marcus. But I know [Svitek] knows he's gotta be ready. Everybody's gotta be ready. That's what the NFL is. That's a good example for everyone how on every play you could go from not expecting to play a lot to being in there on every snap."
Cannon has been ruled out for Sunday's game with the Texans, meaning Svitek will have a significant role on the Patriots line again this weekend when they face JJ Watt and one of the best defensive lines in the league.
"Every week there's always a challenge," Svitek said. "He's a great player obviously. Everyone knows that. He's talented so it's going to be a big challenge. We're going to have to know where he's at. He moves around a lot and does a lot of great things."