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Patriots’ Connolly ready to snap to attention

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By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The vast majority of offensive plays by the Patriots over the last eight seasons have started the same way: With center Dan Koppen grabbing the football in his right hand, then hiking it to the quarterback.

Most of the time, it’s been Tom Brady on the receiving end of Koppen’s initial action, making them one of the most recognizable, most successful, and longest-running center-quarterback tandems in the NFL.

That’ll change Sunday, with Koppen out indefinitely because of a broken left fibula suffered in the second quarter of Monday’s season-opening win in Miami. Barring something unforeseen, Dan Connolly will make his first career start at center, moving from his customary spot at right guard, where he’s made 10 starts and appeared in 28 games the last two seasons.

Brady’s security blanket might be in a protective boot for a chunk of the season - the NFL Network reported that Koppen will be out 6-10 weeks with a small crack and a bad ankle sprain, which could require minor surgery - but that doesn’t mean the league’s reigning MVP is expecting any change to what the high-scoring Patriots can accomplish on offense, starting with the 4:15 p.m. home opener against San Diego.

“Every center-quarterback relationship is special, and [Koppen] and I have had that for a long time,’’ Brady said before practice yesterday at Gillette Stadium. “I’ve known Dan Connolly for a while, he’s been in there at center quite a bit, minicamps, training camps, we’re always preparing for guys playing multiple positions. He’s done a good job of that, he did a damn good job the other night stepping in, and he’ll need to be able to do that for the foreseeable future.’’

Much has been made of the Patriot Way, an unwritten, understood code that covers a wide range of on- and off-field components. Part of the on-field expectation is the ability of the offensive linemen to play multiple positions, something Connolly has come to pride himself on since the Patriots signed him from the practice squad in December 2008.

“That’s why I’m here,’’ Connolly said. “I showed versatility early on, and I feel like that’s why I was kept around, because I can play multiple positions. I prepare myself for any position. Even if I’m starting at guard, I need to have that versatility to play any position, so I’m always prepared to play anything.’’

The 29-year-old from Southeast Missouri State forever endeared himself to Patriots fans by scooping up a kickoff and returning it 71 yards to set up a pivotal touchdown against Green Bay last December, the longest return by an offensive lineman in NFL history. He’ll further cement his standing if he can make Koppen’s absence less noticeable by playing well and staying healthy.

In addition to guard, center, and kickoff returner, Connolly has also seen time as a fullback and tight end in short-yardage situations with the Patriots.

“He’s been a pretty versatile guy for us in playing all the inside positions and playing in different roles,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s done a lot of different things for us.’’

Connolly has been the backup center the past two-plus seasons, despite never having played the position until he arrived in New England (he played in four regular-season games with Jacksonville in 2004 after signing as an undrafted free agent, then appeared in a 28-3 playoff loss to the Patriots). As the backup, he’ll work with the quarterbacks (including Brady) on handoffs before and during practice. Now, as the starter, he’ll also be calling out blocking responsibilities to his linemates.

“I don’t view guard as a position where you allow someone else to tell you what to do, we all need to know what’s going on. At center, it’s just a more vocal position,’’ Connolly said. “I’ve got to know what’s going on, just like I would at guard.’’

The Patriots used the shotgun formation 38 times against the Dolphins (they ran 71 plays), and in case fans are wondering, Connolly doesn’t view that part of his new job as a big challenge: “I don’t feel like I struggle with it at all, I practice it enough to make sure he’s getting the ball in his hands.’’

Connolly said Koppen will be available for advice or assistance, but wants to spend his time focusing on a solid Chargers defensive front instead of the novelty of a new offensive assignment. The cameras and reporters in front of his locker yesterday, though, let him know that novelty usually makes news, especially in these parts.

He’s got the full backing of the guy who will be waiting on him to start each play.

“Dan’s been here for quite a while, he understands the system, he understands the calls. When you play right guard and then you’ve got to move over to center, you know all the center’s calls. He’s been a backup center for a long time, and he’s expected to go out there and perform very well, as he’s done at right guard,’’ Brady said. “All those guys have some position flexibility.’’

Counting the opener, Koppen has started 120 games at center for the Patriots, so what might be an overlooked or underappreciated piece of the team’s high-octane machine will certainly be missed while he’s on the mend. Brady might have a different teammate in front of him the next handful of weeks, but he said he’s not worried about that.

“I can’t focus on what the center’s doing. I trust those guys to do their job,’’ he said. “I got plenty of things for me to focus on.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.

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