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Nate Solder fits in well with rest of anonymous offensive linemen during debut

08.12.11 at 12:26 am ET
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FOXBORO – The preseason is a time for rookies to get some playing time under their belts and see just how fast the NFL game is played. But for the average rookie, that time usually doesn’t come until the later quarters when they face other rookies and role players vying for nothing but a spot on the roster and maybe some playing time when the games actually count.

Then, there’s Nate Solder.

The Patriots first-round pick (17th overall) was thrust into the starting left tackle position Thursday night with Matt Light still not on the active roster after he signed a free agent contract last week. In fact, Solder was part of a piecemealed offensive line unit that was without stars Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen and instead included the likes of Thomas Austin and Rich Ohrnberger at the starting left guard and center positions.

Still, if you didn’t know the names of Solder, Austin, Ohrnberger, right guard Mark LeVoir and right tackle Steve Maneri before Thursday’s 47-12 win over the Jaguars, you probably didn’t know them afterwards either. That first offensive line unit didn’t give you much reason to point them out during the game – a task usually left for offensive linemen who blow a blocking assignment – and gave starting quarterback Brian Hoyer enough time to throw for a game-high 171 yards while not being sacked once.

Solder, who played in the game’s first 10 drives, was also at least part of the group of O-linemen that didn’t allow a sack in the second half either with rookie Ryan Mallett under center. For reference, last year’s group of offensive line starters allowed zero sacks four times in 16 games.

When asked about how he thought Solder played in his NFL preseason debut, Hoyer wouldn’t talk about the rookie directly but instead referenced the group as the unit that it is.

“I thought the whole line in general [played well],” he said. “There weren’t too many times when I felt rushed or got hit after a throw, so usually when that happens it means those guys are doing pretty well. And I don’t really remember anything coming from the left side, so like I said, when you’re not feeling a lot of pressure, you’re assuming that the O-line is doing a good job.”

Although the group performed admirably, it was certainly a mismatched group at that. Solder said that the concept of playing with a different group of guys each time out isn’t a whole new concept to him, although he expects that dynamic to change as his time in a Patriots uniform continues.

“It was the same in college,” Solder said. “There were a lot of different groups I went with in college. It’s always good to have some company on your O-line and play with some of the same guys. I think that’s going to happen over time.

“We’re building. Step by step, we’ve got a long way’s to go on that.”

The biggest key to Solder and the rest of the O-line’s growth this preseason and beyond will be tied to New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, the only man in franchise history to be coachon the sidelines in each of the team’s six Super Bowl appearances.

Solder noted that although he could walk out of Gillette Stadium with a little bit of pride Thursday night, he knew that either the hard-nosed Scarnecchia or similarly difficult head coach Bill Belichick would be right there with game tape in hand to knock the rookie right back down.

“I’m going to leave that to them,” Solder said. “I could say there’s some things to work but I’m not exactly sure what they are. [Scarnecchia’s] going to get in there and some of the things I think I did well, maybe he doesn’t. He knows much better than I do.”

Belichick already expressed that a little bit in the postgame Thursday when he addressed the excellent play of his rookies, which included quarterback Mallett (12/19, 164 yards, 1 TD) and Stevan Ridley (16 carries, 64 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 7 catches, 47 yards, 1 receiving TD), during the preseason win over Jacksonville.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Belichick said. “We’ve seen some of those things in practice the last couple weeks, guys making plays here and there. But, you know, [they’re] not consistent and that’s what we’ve got to work on. We’ve got to do it more consistently. But the talent level is there, and they were able to step it up and made some plays. I’m sure there were plenty of things we need to work on, but there were some positive things too.”

Because of that ever-present forces of Belichick and Scarnecchia behind him, Solder knows he’ll have to stay in line and keep stringing performances together where people still question how he’s doing because he’s played one of the most anonymous positions in football the correct way. Because with Light, Mankins and Koppen all set to return to their regular starting gigs, Solder could and most likely will move back to the spot where absolutely nobody notices him: the sidelines.

“I’m staying within the system, my responsibilities and what my coach asks me to do,” Solder said. “It’s a building process. You’re never there. You’re never not there. I’m just getting better every day.”

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