The New England Patriots are full speed ahead towards a 2020 season that will look noticeably different not just because of the Coronavirus’ impact on its game-day procedures. The team will also have to move forward without two key members of its dynastic run. While quarterback Tom Brady left New England as an unrestricted free agent, long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia announced his retirement from coaching.
With the 72-year-old calling it a career after 36 seasons in the NFL — 34 of which as a member of the Patriots — the organization turned to not one but two assistants to fill the void: Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo.
Popovich started working in New England in 2015, when he joined the club as a coaching assistant — a role he held for four years and one that saw him work with the offensive line quite a bit. He was promoted to assistant running backs coach under Ivan Fears last offseason before eventually moving back to the offensive line again this spring.
Bricillo, meanwhile, arrived in Foxborough last offseason as a coaching assistant that worked closely alongside Scarnecchia over the course of the 2019 season. While his NFL experience is limited, the 43-year-old has an impressive track record, even though most of it comes from the collegiate ranks: before arriving in New England, Bricillo coached the offensive line at Youngstown State for nine seasons.
The two young assistants naturally have big shoes to fill — Scarnecchia helped the Patriots win five Super Bowls and has as good a Hall of Fame case as any assistant coach — but the transition appears to be working well with training camp underway.
“It’s been pretty smooth, it’s been pretty great,” said right guard Shaq Mason during a media conference call last week. “Those guys learned from Scar and they’re drilling the same that Scar drilled into us and we’re moving right along.”
Mason originally arrived in New England via the fourth round of the NFL’s 2015 draft. Back then, Scarnecchia was in the second year of his first retirement from coaching and the team’s offensive line was led by Dave DeGuglielmo. DeGuglielmo was let go following Mason’s rookie campaign and he had to transition to Scarnecchia before now having to get used to working with Popovich and Bricillo.
The 26-year-old is not the only member of New England’s blockers who has to adapt to working with line coaches number three and four over the course of his career. Center David Andrews is in the same boat, and also is speaking of a smooth transition.
“I think we’ve done a great job of just coming to work each day,” the team captain said on Sunday. “It’s something I’ve experienced once in my career, going from coach Guge to Scar my first year. That’s just part of this business: coaches retire, coaches move on — just like players. It’s just part of this business in the NFL that you’re learning very quickly as a player. It’s just something that you get used to, and something that you just take and move forward and go to work every day.”
Andrews and Mason are the leaders of the Patriots’ offensive line due to their status as its elder statesmen. Together with left guard Joe Thuney and left tackle Isaiah Wynn they form the core of a unit that also has to get used to playing with a new right tackle following Marcus Cannon’s opt-out. Jermaine Eluemunor is the frontrunner at the time being, with Popovich and Bricillo helping him settle into the role after he served as a backup guard/tackle hybrid after arriving in New England via trade last year.
What helps them do that is building on a foundation that was laid by Scarnecchia, as Isaiah Wynn said earlier during camp.
“Both coaches, Cole and Carmen, have experience with Coach Scar, so if anything it is nothing different as far as teaching and all that. It’s exciting. It’s nothing new that we really have to learn — like I said, they’ve been under Scar,” said the former first-round draft pick about the only offensive line coach he has worked with in the NFL up until this year.
While it remains to be seen how ready Popovich and Bricillo will actually have their unit once the regular season gets kicked off in mid-September, the early returns look promising. The line has had some very good drills during the first week worth of full-contact training camp while going against one of the best defenses in football. The four returning starters in particular looked good in the process.
Andrews, Mason and Wynn are not the only ones to speak highly of the new coaching duo working with the line, though: the same goes for running back Rex Burkhead, who got a first-hand look at Popovich over the course of the 2019 season.
“I took a lot from Cole, even with pass protection,” said Burkhead. “Certain ways they block help us out with our technique as well. But just how he’s simplified the run game with us, and understanding ‘This guy’s going to work off him and so forth, this is how you should follow the blocks on this run’ — I thought he did a tremendous job with that.
“Something I really took heed of and I know the other backs did as well, and we really tried to implemented in our game, is instead of being just running backs and relying on our natural talent and what we see in our eyes, but really understanding there’s a flow with the offensive line and how they are working the guys,” continued the veteran back. “He did a great job with that and he will continue to do a great job for us.”