Scarnecchia constant anchor in ever-changing offensive line

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Scarnecchia constant anchor in ever-changing offensive line

FOXBORO -- Dante Scarnecchia's gray t-shirt, tucked neatly into his shorts, had turned a few shades darker with sweat. Haunched at the waist, he leaned forward as if he wanted to stick his nose in the middle of a drill between two Patriots offensive linemen almost twice his size, and he coached.

Scarnecchia has been a staple on the Patriots coaching staff for three decades. He has held several titles, from defensive assistant to special teams coach and tight ends coach, and for the last 14 seasons the offensive line has been his responsibility.

During training camp, Scarnecchia's group of Tom-Brady-protectors has been in a constant state of flux, but coach Bill Belichick knows that regardless of the line's moving parts, it's in good hands.

"He's awesome. He's awesome," Belichick said of Scarnecchia. "Dante's a great coach on every level. He's real good with X's and O's. He does a great job with the veteran players. He's brought along and developed many of our young players, rookie players, draft choices, free agents . . . taken guys off the practice squad and built them into starters or contributors on the line. He's invaluable.

"I think not only myself, but a lot of other people on the staff as well, other coaching staff members, rely on him for advice or ask him questions, take advantage of his experience. He's had not only experience on the offensive line, but he's coached special teams, he's coached defense. He's really got a great breadth in his coaching career and experience level as well as great proficiency in the offensive line and how well he's done with that group since I've been here and before that. He does a tremendous job."

The offensive line has been one big chemistry experiment during Patriots training camp because players who were mainstays last season are either hurt, or just not around. Logan Mankins is out injured, as is Sebastian Vollmer. Brian Waters still hasn't reported, and Matt Light is retired. Second-year tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have received most of the first-team reps, but there's been significant mixing and matching on the interior line. Dan Koppen, who missed all of last season after suffering an injury in Week 1, has been back at center with the first-team offense. His replacement last season, Dan Connolly, has moved back to guard, and presumed backups Robert Gallery and Donald Thomas have both seen time at guard with the first team. Ryan Wendell has also manned spots at both guard and center.

With Scarnecchia in their ears, they all know that they need to be ready -- and ready to play multiple positions on the line -- whenever called upon.

"The key to playing in the league is to be versatile," Thomas said. "To be able to play, in my case, at least both guards, and if my number's called for center I gotta be ready to do that. A lot of guys play guard and tackle or center and guard so there's a lot of moving parts, but guys know how to fill in. We all watch the same film so we all watch each other's mistakes. When you get put in there, you just have to know how to perform at that position."

And if they don't, Scarnecchia, who also holds the title of assistant head coach, will let them know.

"He wants it his way, and it's the right way," Thomas said. "So you can't argue with it. He's gonna stay on top of you, he doesn't care who you are, if you've been with him for eight, ten years, or if it's your first day. He's going to coach you like he wants to coach you and you're gonna give him what he wants.

"He can raise his voice from time to time. But we really listen to him so he hasn't had to flip out that much yet. But he gets on us though . . . He wants it right so you can't be mad at him."

Koppen has spent his entire NFL career being coached by Scarnecchia and said he may not be in his tenth training camp if it wasn't for the 64-year-old.

"He's very demanding," Koppen said. "He's your biggest fan when you do things right, and he'll tell you when you do it wrong. That's what you want from a coach."

Scarnecchia doesn't often do interviews, but he doesn't have to. His players and fellow coaches are quick to praise him, and it's apparent that they trust in him no matter how many revisions his offensive line endures.

"Our offensive line are really well coached, I know that," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "I have great faith in Dante and the job that he's done here, and I appreciate him more and more everyday that i work with him. I have no reservations about the way that those guys will prepare in that meeting room and be ready to go when it's their turn or when they're called upon."

Report: Belichick may be called to testify in Hernandez trial

Report: Belichick may be called to testify in Hernandez trial

Bill Belichick, identified as "William Belichick," has been added to the list of potential defense witnesses who could testify during the upcoming double-homicide trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, according to the Boston Herald.

Per the Herald, the new list of potential witnesses for the defense also includes Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who was Hernandez's teammate at the University of Florida. 

Belichick, McDaniels and Pouncey aren't guaranteed to testify, but their presence on the civilian witness list makes their presence in court a possibility. 

Hernandez's trial is scheduled to start next Wednesday. He's accused of killing Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Furtado back in July of 2012. Hernandez is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of the murder Odin Lloyd in 2013.

Patriots To-Do List: Figure out what’s up with Cyrus Jones

Patriots To-Do List: Figure out what’s up with Cyrus Jones

Personally, I would buy a crapload of stock in Cyrus Jones. In part because – after his nightmarish rookie season – stock can be bought on the cheap. But also because he’s too talented, too committed and too smart to suck like he did in 2016 when he handled punts like they were coated in uranium and never made a big contribution in the secondary.

(Listen above to hear Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry discuss Cyrus Jones on the Quick Slants podcast.)

Because of his disappointing year, Jones is an overlooked player on the Patriots roster, but he’s in a pivotal spot. With Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon approaching free agency, Malcolm Butler’s contract expiring after 2017, Pat Chung on the edge of 30 and a free agent after 2018 and the other corners being Justin Coleman, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones is going to get his shot.

The reason I included safeties Harmon and Chung in the discussion is that when the Patriots go to six DBs, roles are less stringently defined. And because of Jones’ size (5-10, 200), powerful build and short-area quickness, he can be the kind of versatile player who covers inside against quicker slot receivers as well as being on the outside if necessary. Kind of like Chung can cover on the back end or drop down to cover tight ends.

The Patriots are confident that Jones will get it right. His teammates in the secondary are unanimous in saying he’s got all the talent he needs.  

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

But as 2016 wore on, it was apparent that Jones was miserable and let his failures consume him. Jones muffed or fumbled five kicks in the 2016 season.
 
By the time the Patriots played the Ravens on a Monday night in December, he was so inside his own head that he stalked a bouncing punt he had no business being near (for the second time that game) and had it bounce off his foot setting up a Ravens touchdown. That night, Jones exited the Patriots locker room and made his way to the players parking lot before the field was even clear of equipment.

Jones either expected things to come as easily in the NFL as they did at Alabama and wasn’t prepared to deal with adversity. Or the mistakes he made caused him to wonder if he really was good enough to play in the league.

Either way, Cyrus Jones was all about Cyrus Jones in 2016. And his comments to the Baltimore Sun over the weekend were evidence that the world he’s concerned with ends at the end of his nose. 

"I honestly felt cursed," he said. "I reached a point where I didn't even want to play. I just didn't have it...What I did this year was not me," he said. "I don't care how anybody tries to sugarcoat it. Yes, I was a rookie. But I feel I should always be one of the best players on the field, no matter where I am.
 
"But honestly, it was hell for me," he said. "That's the only way I can describe it. I didn't feel I deserved to be part of anything that was happening with the team. I felt embarrassed that these people probably thought they wasted a pick on me."

The first thing Jones needs to do this offseason is get over himself. He can look one locker down and talk to Devin McCourty about getting crushed for shaky play in 2012, battling through it and then turning into a Pro Bowl-level safety. He can talk to fellow Alabama product Dont'a Hightower about Hightower’s being benched in the 2013 season against the Broncos and labeled a bust before flipping his season around and being the team’s best defender by the end of that year.

But he’s going to have to figure it out. Draft status means nothing to New England and, as it now stands, undrafted corner Jonathan Jones out of Auburn has more demonstrated value to the team that Cyrus Jones does. In two months, the Patriots are damn sure going to add more secondary players.

This offseason, Jones needs to check his ego, simplify his game and simply ban outside perceptions from fans, media or coaches from infect his on-field decision-making.

His conversation with the Sun didn’t really indicate he’s ready to do that. Asked about criticism, Jones said, “It pisses me off. You can say shut it out or don't listen, but I know people are talking, and it's negative. I'm not a dumb guy. It definitely affects me. What it should do is piss me off in a way that I want to shut them all up."

From the limited number of times I spoke with him and from his teammates regard for him, I can confirm Jones isn’t a dumb guy. That doesn’t necessarily make life easier though. In 2016, Cyrus Jones’ brain got in the way. The Patriots need him to shut that thing off in 2017.