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FOXBOROUGH — Over his first four seasons with the Patriots, whenever Ryan Wendell started a game — five times in all — it always came with an asterisk and three little words.
In place of.
Wendell started two games in 2010 at right guard — in place of an injured Dan Connolly. He started two games at center last year — in place of Connolly, again injured. He made one start last season at left guard — in place of Logan Mankins, out with an injury.
Belonging to an offensive line unit that prides itself on position flexibility, Wendell had turned himself into a versatile supersub, working his way up through the ranks of undrafted free agent and becoming a serviceable band-aid starter.
Now he’s taken the next step. Wendell is starting, but the asterisk is gone. True, Matt Light retired and Brian Waters has chosen not to report. But Wendell is in there because he’s one of the best linemen the Patriots have. He was a key cog at center last week, when the Patriots rushed for 162 yards and had their way with the Titans. He’s expected to be back at center in Sunday’s home opener against Arizona.
“It’s really good to have my role expanded to whatever the coaches deem it to be each week,” Wendell said. “I like any chance I get as a player, so it’s good to be out there.”
That wasn’t always a given in the NFL. He wasn’t drafted out of Fresno State, signed with the Patriots in May 2008, and spent that season on the practice squad. He saw limited snaps in two games the next season, then a meatier role in 2010 (15 games, two starts). He made three starts last year, plus snaps in all three playoff games.
Wendell’s professional career has steadily improved. When he’s been given more responsibility, he’s played well enough to justify the opportunity.
“A lot of hard work, a lot of just stringing a lot of good days together. Day after day, week after week, year after year,” coach Bill Belichick said. “When we first had Wendy, we actually released him off the practice squad and then brought him back, so that’s a guy whose level has risen dramatically from when he first started here.”
Wendell has a simple explanation.
“Coming out of college I was overjoyed just to be on the team. Being on the practice squad was more than I ever imagined, so I was really excited about having that opportunity,” he said. “Just like anything else, once you try something you just want more of it. Being on the practice squad, the next thing you want is to be an active guy. Once you become an active guy, you want to be a dress guy. Once you become a dress guy, you want to be a starter. There’s a lot of levels you keep trying to climb up.”
He hasn’t minded the climb, and now finds himself at a position (center) where he has to read the defense and make the appropriate blocking calls to his linemates.
Asked about his impressions of Wendell — who at 6 feet 2 inches, 300 pounds is smaller than the other starters on the line — Mankins didn’t hesitate.
“Well, he’s short, first of all,” said Mankins, also a Fresno State product. “But no, Wendy’s a great guy, great player. Ever since he came into this locker room, he’s worked really hard on and off the field, and it’s showing now in the position he’s in.”
Wendell, who earned All-Western Athletic Conference academic honors, has focused on the checklist needed to get better, which has earned him more playing time, little by little. Checklist? Allow Belichick to elaborate.
“He’s gotten stronger, he’s improved his athletic skills, his numbers, his quickness, explosion, power, strength, all those things,” Belichick said. “He’s gotten better with technique, he’s just become a better football player as well as improved a little bit athletically as he’s grown and matured into his body.”
Now he’s in the middle of the line, playing one of the more unsung but significant positions, starting every offensive play by hiking it to a future Hall of Fame quarterback. For someone who wasn’t sure he was going to have a chance to play football beyond high school, much less college, starting in the NFL seems too good to be true.
“Playing in the NFL is a dream, and every day I try to remember that I get to go out and do exactly what I’ve wanted to do,” Wendell said. “I try to keep that in my mind. I love football and I just want to keep playing as long as I can.”