LeVoir set in motion
FOXBOROUGH - At the start of Patriots practice yesterday, Mark LeVoir lined up at right tackle with the starting offense. Last Sunday, LeVoir entered in the middle of the second quarter and played left tackle for 25 snaps. In the past four games, LeVoir has lined up as a tight end or fullback in a power formation on 28 plays.
With Matt Light perhaps poised to return from a knee injury and Sebastian Vollmer held out of practice yesterday, the Patriots could be rearranging their offensive line for Monday night. They have several options, in part, because of the versatility of LeVoir, a fourth-year lineman from Notre Dame who missed the first seven weeks of this season with a shoulder injury.
LeVoir signed with the Patriots just before last season. He went undrafted and then spent the first year of his career on the practice squad of the Chicago Bears. He played in 2007 for the St. Louis Rams, who made him a late cut after training camp in 2008. Patriots personnel man Scott Pioli called him the next day, beginning what had become a familiar process for LeVoir.
“Throwing all my stuff in a suitcase and away we go,’’ he said. “I was just happy to be here.’’
By the end of his first Patriots season, LeVoir had started two games for an injured Nick Kaczur. This week, after overcoming the shoulder injury that kept him on the physically unable to perform list, LeVoir may end up in the starting lineup again.
While Light sat out and Vollmer, a rookie, excelled, the offensive line debate centered around what to do once Light returned - put him at right tackle and let Vollmer continue his strong play on the left side, or shift Vollmer to the right side? Now their statuses are both uncertain, but it’s possible Light will return as Vollmer (head injury) needs to sit out.
The easy solution of simply switching in Light for Vollmer, though, may not happen. Kaczur, the usual starter at right tackle, has struggled at times in pass coverage, particularly against Robert Mathis when the Patriots faced the Colts. LeVoir has been solid in spot playing time and while lining up in atypical formations, and the Patriots may decide he has become their best option.
Once he had his chance at left tackle Sunday, he produced one of the signature plays of the Patriots victory over the Jets. LeVoir took two steps straight ahead, feigning a run block on the middle linebacker, and cut quickly to his left. Wes Welker caught a screen pass, froze cornerback Donald Strickland with a juke, and cut inside LeVoir.
LeVoir, at 315 pounds, bulldozed Strickland with the kind of block that makes an entire stadium yelp, “Ooooh!’’ in unison. Strickland wobbled off the field with a concussion.
This week, LeVoir declined to discuss the play because of the controversy Strickland injected into it. On Monday, Strickland told The Star-Ledger of Newark that he thought the block was “a real cheap shot’’ that violated the league’s rule on helmet-to-helmet collisions. He vowed to “retaliate’’ the next time he plays the Patriots.
LeVoir, according to a league source, will not be fined for the play, thereby absolving him of Strickland’s charges. The league will not fine Strickland, either, for his comments.
LeVoir earned his way into the game by virtue of his versatility. The Patriots use him as a fullback or tight end in goal line and short-yardage situations, and he can play right tackle and left tackle with equal efficacy.
“There’s something to be said for that versatility,’’ Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “Sometimes you have guys that have a little more skill on the right side, but they can’t play on the left side and vice versa. Or maybe he’s a little bit more of a left tackle and really can’t play on the right side. So the thing with Mark is having that versatility, there’s value to your club.’’
Playing high school football in Minnesota, LeVoir was an All-America tight end and a basketball player skilled enough to play on elite summer AAU teams. LeVoir arrived at Notre Dame as a tight end, but coaches switched him to tackle before the first game of his career.
“I kind of ate my way into that position,’’ LeVoir said. “I knew eventually that was probably what was going to happen.’’
The skills he honed as a tight end, blocking in open space and lining up on both sides of the line, helped him play both tackle positions. He plays left tackle one day in practice and right tackle the next, staying sharp at both spots.
“At first, it was difficult,’’ LeVoir said. “Now it’s more or less second nature.’’
When LeVoir first came to the Patriots, the offense felt familiar. He had played under former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Though Weis had long departed New England by last season, “the base stuff’’ was similar to what he knew at college, LeVoir said.
In the two years since, he has learned the rest, wherever the Patriots need him to.
“Whatever he’s been called upon to do,’’ Caserio said, “he’s gone in there and performed.’’