Coach Pat Hill probably knows more about the Patriots offensive line than anyone else outside of Gillette Stadium and he’s optimistic about the Patriots future in the trenches. Hill served as the offensive line coach for head coach Bill Belichick in Cleveland and was hired because of his focus on the “fundamentals.”
“Hill was the offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona in 1991,” John Canzano of the Oregonian relayed back in 2015. “Belichick came to Tucson to work out an offensive tackle named Jon Fina, an eventual first-round draft pick who played 11 NFL seasons. Belichick liked Fina's fundamentals so much he hired Hill on the spot.”
Even though the Cleveland experience didn’t work out for Belichick and company, the eventual-Patriots head coach kept in contact with Hill, who moved on to lead Fresno State for 15 seasons. Belichick dipped into the well for a pair of Patriots captains in offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell.
In other words, Hill knows his offensive linemen and Belichick respects his analysis. So when Hill recommended that the Patriots add Cole Popovich to the coaching staff this past year, Belichick didn’t even wait for the season to end- he signed to the staff Popovich before the playoffs.
And now Popovich might be the heir to legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
“[Cole] was an outstanding player and a great student of the game,” Hill told PatsPulpit.com via e-mail. “After he was done playing he immediately went into coaching and has done a great job everywhere he's been. He will be a great addition to the staff at New England because of his work ethic and knowledge of the game. He will relate well to players and he will be a great fundamental teacher of offensive line play. He will fit in with Bill very well. He will do his job and he has to work ethic needed to be a PATRIOT.”
Popovich has served as an offensive line coach at four different colleges over the past six seasons, including a two-year stint at Utah State from 2013-14, under coach Mark Weber- Popovich’s old line coach at Fresno State.
Popovich was a four-year starter at Fresno State and was named Unanimous Freshman All American at left guard in 2005.
"Being at Fresno State was an important step for me going into coaching because of the way Coach Hill ran the program,” Popovich said when he was hired as the offensive line coach at Minot State. “We received a good football education- he didn't dumb stuff down because it was college. I felt like I was ahead of the curve because of it.
“We played against teams that were better than us, but we played so hard. That left a mark on me and that will be my coaching style: we will also be great technicians of the game and know football and know technique. We will be a tactical line."
Popovich was the first true freshman to start on Coach Hill’s offensive line at Fresno State, and he actually played left guard alongside then-left tackle Logan Mankins in 2004. Unfortunately, an early biceps injury derailed his season and he received a medical red shirt year- which allowed Ryan Wendell to take his place in the line-up, with Wendell being named Freshman All American.
Popovich played the bulk of his Fresno State career alongside Wendell- literally, as the two were left guard and center- and the two formed an interesting bond.
“Cole has always had good football sense,” Weber told PatsPulpit.com in a phone interview. “I would walk into the meeting room and I remember him and Ryan Wendell and they'd always be talking about ‘when we're coaching, Cole would be the line coach and Ryan would be the offensive coordinator.’”
Weber helped Cole achieve that dream of being a line coach and brought him to Utah State.
“[Popovich] helped me and it was amazing how good his [coaching] instincts were at Utah State,” Weber added. “Some people can learn it from a book, but he feels it and he understands football. He wants to be great. He'll work however long and hard he has to work to be great and to know it. He wants to be prepared and he wants to know everything, the ins and out.
“You talk about Cole, Cole was tough as anything. I remember he had a lot of injuries that were pretty bad- a lot of surgeries- he had a torn biceps that he played with. He loves the weight room; he looks like he could still play now. I know that when he was with me at Utah State, the guys loved him and they respected him. And they respect him because of his knowledge and because of how he carries himself. There's nothing pretentious about Cole. He's all business.”
The coach that Weber describes seems to have been conjured out of Belichick’s dreams because Popovich seems to check all of the boxes. He wants to be great. He’s tough. He’s prepared. He’s respected. He’s all business. He’s “a great fundamental teacher of offensive line play,” to borrow from Coach Hill.
Weber noted multiple common threads from Mankins to Wendell to Popovich that point to a successful future for Popovich as an offensive line coach in the Patriots organization.
“All three of those guys? Tough as nails,” according to Weber. “All three of those guys are football junkies. They all knew how to study and they loved it. They don't have to have all the measurables- none of them were recruited by anybody- but they were great football players and they could play for anybody in the country.”
Side Story: Weber relayed a story of Wendell’s freshman year in 2004, when he started in the bowl game against Virginia. “Wendell’s like a coach on the field,” Weber said. “When he started as a freshman, he maybe weighed 240 pounds dripping wet. I remember we beat Virginia and it was a great bowl game- and their linebackers were bigger than Ryan.”
Popovich just turned 31 this offseason and he has a long coaching career ahead of him. He’s coming from a great system of football that Belichick respects and it seems fairly clear that Popovich has been added with the future in mind.
Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned from a two-year retirement, but he is 68 years old. How many more years can he coach? Popovich, with his history as a line coach, is a natural successor and can shadow Scarnecchia until retirement day.
“Having [Dante Scarnecchia] back at New England will be great in the education and growth of Cole Popovich,” Coach Hill said. “I feel [Popovich] will be an outstanding offense of line coach in the NFL for years to come.”
Popovich will likely serve as a general offensive assistant for a season or two to integrate into the Patriots system, before being promoted to assistant offensive line coach. Unlike former veteran line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, Popovich is still an unmolded piece of clay that can be shaped under Scarnecchia.
“I thought Cole would be a great Division I college football line coach from the beginning and not every guy is cut out to do that,” Weber said. “And he's surpassed that.”
“He's a sharp young man,” Weber added. “I think Cole is one of he really good ones. He's going to be a great line coach. He already is.”