A confluence of circumstances have left the New England Patriots thinner on the offensive line than what they're used to.
It's times like these a sturdy presence is necessary.
When it comes to sturdy presences, perhaps none are as sturdy as offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. In terms of offensive linemen, though, center Dan Koppen might come in a close second.
The absences of several key players—guard Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are absent with injuries, and guard Brian Waters still has yet to show—has caused for some shakeups in what is ordinarily a steady group, but Koppen looks at the situation as a positive.
"No, it's great for us right now," Koppen told the media, "because we know what [Vollmer and Mankins] can do. Obviously they'd love to be out here, and we'd love to have them out here, but to be able to work with the other guys and get a feel for other people and all that stuff, it can only help us."
This is where Scarnecchia has done some of his best work, in bringing in unheralded, undrafted and unknown offensive linemen to fill in. Along the way, Scarnecchia has continued to getting the most out of them, no matter what their past is, how they ended up in the league or on the Patriots roster.
The way the line has played, it doesn't seem like the list should be as long as it is. That's a testament to Scarnecchia's coaching, and his ability to turn lemons into lemonade, to plug-and-play yet enjoy nearly seamless transitions.
Offensive guard Donald Thomas is a prime example of this, having been added on the fly after the season-ending injury to Koppen; Thomas even started a game at the end of the 2011 season against the Miami Dolphins, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2008.
"He never gets rattled," Thomas said. "Whatever happens out there—somebody goes down, a new lineup—he has complete faith in all of us. I think that really keeps us calm that he has that much faith in us, and we have a lot of faith in each other. We can just go out there and play ball between the hashes."
If Thomas wants to enjoy a long, successful career, perhaps he could lean on Koppen for advice; the center joined the league as an unheralded fifth-round pick. Now entering his 10th season in the league, he says he owes it all to Dante.
"He's the only O-line coach I've ever known," Koppen said, "and just how he's helped me, who knows if I would have made this 10th training camp without him. ...He treats everybody and coaches everybody, from the oldest guy to the youngest guy. He's very demanding. He's your biggest fan when you do things right, and he'll tell you when you do it wrong. He tells you the truth, and that's what you want in a coach."
It's that hard-working mentality that has earned the respect of not only his pupils but also his leader.
For Scarnecchia to build the offensive line into a strength despite, at times, working with players off the scrap heap is no small feat, and it doesn't go unnoticed by head coach Bill Belichick.
"He's awesome. He's awesome," Belichick said. "Dante is 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 so many of our young players, rookie players, draft choices, free agents, taking guys off the practice squad and built them into starters or contributors on the line, so 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 and are asking questions to take advantage of his experience."
Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.