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McDonald is putting versatility to good use

The Patriots feel Nick McDonald is capable of playing every spot on the offensive line. The Patriots feel Nick McDonald is capable of playing every spot on the offensive line. (jim davis/globe staff)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 14, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH — For starters on the Patriots’ offensive line, their position is typically their only position: Dan Koppen always played center, Matt Light was always at left tackle, and, save for one game last season, Logan Mankins always played left guard.

For the backups, it’s often a different story. Dan Connolly started at both guard spots in 2010 and last season started 11 games at center. Donald Thomas played guard and some fullback last year.

For Nick McDonald, his assignments aren’t limited to the three interior spots. The Michigan native added to his résumé last week against the Saints by taking snaps at both tackle spots, as well as center.

In his second season with the Patriots, the 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound McDonald has earned the respect of teammates for rising to the occasion in a pinch. Last December he was promoted off the practice squad and made his first career start 24 hours later, playing center Dec. 4 against the Colts. On Monday, he received plaudits from Bill Belichick for his play.

“We don’t have a lot of depth at tackle, so he was probably the most experienced — not that he has a lot of experience — but still the most experienced guy with also the athleticism to be able to play the position,” Belichick said. “I thought, really, he did a pretty good job out there for not much practice. He hadn’t done it a couple years and went back out there and really did a pretty credible job. That was great to see.

“There aren’t many offensive linemen in the league that can play all five spots. If he could do that, that would be very valuable to our football team.”

Mankins, who was also a tackle in college at Fresno State, is someone who Belichick believes could handle any spot on the line.

As has been proven time and again in recent years, versatility is king with the Patriots. Players frequently say, “the more you can do . . . ” when asked about a change in roles, but McDonald might raise the bar in that respect. In addition to his myriad line duties, he also plays on special teams.

The Patriots currently have Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon at the starting tackle spots with Sebastian Vollmer (back) on the physically unable to perform list. Matt Kopa is nursing an ankle injury, and they’ve brought in rookies Darrion Weems, Kyle Hill, and Dustin Waldron to help at tackle.

But it is McDonald who has the coaching staff’s trust.

“You’ve just got to know it. It’s not that big of a difference; some things are, but when you play guard you’ve kind of got to know what the tackle’s doing and every guy’s got to know different spots,” he said.

It was pretty easy jumping back into the mix at tackle, McDonald said, giving a brief synopsis of the differences between playing center, guard, and tackle.

“It’s not really that different. Scheme-wise it’s different, you’ve got to know different assignments, but playing center you know what the guard’s doing, playing guard you know what the tackle’s doing, so it all works together,” he said.

Just sticking with an NFL team is a challenge for players from Division 2 programs such as McDonald, who was an undrafted rookie in 2010 and was released by the Packers last September.

“You’ve just got to know everything. You’ve got to expect the coaches in different spots; you’ve got to get your nose in the book, you’ve got to know everything,” McDonald said. “It’s what they expect out of you.

“I just do what the coaches ask me to. Anything I can do to help this team be successful, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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