FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Dan Connolly looked out at the crowd surrounding him as he stood deep in his locker at Gillette Stadium and smiled.

An offensive lineman, he’s not usually the center of media attention. But with the news that he will replace Dan Koppen at center for the New England Patriots, well, he became newsworthy.

“It’s all right,” said Connolly. “I don’t mind it.”

Connolly, 29, is in his third season with the Patriots, his sixth season overall. He made some headlines when he returned a kickoff 71 yards against Green Bay last December. He received some love that night from the media but nothing compared to Wednesday.

Connolly is pretty much the poster child for anonymous offensive linemen. You see him in a locker room, try to remember who he is, then move on.

But he’s a very valuable member of this team. Last year he played the first seven games at left guard, replacing Logan Mankins during Mankins’ holdout. Then he played six games at right guard for the injured — and now retired — Stephen Neal.

Connolly played tackle at tiny Southeast Missouri State, but learned quickly in the NFL that he needed to do something else to stick. So when Jacksonville dumped him after two seasons, the Patriots picked him up and he learned to play center. He’s also been used as an extra tight end or fullback in short-yardage or goal-line situations.

“Yeah, Dan’s done a lot for us over the years,” said Coach Bill Belichick.

“I showed versatility early and I feel like that’s why I was kept around, because I can play multiple positions,” Connolly said.

That’s the way it is on the offensive line. Nate Solder, the top pick, played left tackle in college. He made his first NFL start Monday at right tackle. It’s not easy making that switch.

But under Belichick and line coach Dante Scarnecchia, versatility is the key word. Every year they have someone who slides in and fills roles.

“Coach always says the more you can do around here. … If you can only do one thing, you better do it really well. … So obviously those guys have to play multiple positions,” said quarterback Tom Brady.

“Dan’s been here for quite a while. He understands the position, he understands the system, he understands the 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 right along.”

Connolly knows he has a challenge but feels his experience has prepared him well.

“I think the comfort with the offense is a little more than what it was a few years ago,” he said. “Like I said before, I always prepare myself for anything that could happen, playing guard, playing center, whatever it is. I feel years of doing that has helped.”

BRADY CAUSED a bit of stir when, during his weekly press conference, he was asked if he had any message for the Pats’ fans for the home opener.

“Start drinking early,” was his response. “It’s a 4:15 game.”

Everyone laughed, knowing it was Brady’s attempt to tell the fans to get rowdy.

Later, Pats VP of media relations, Stacey James, said Brady wanted to clarify his comment to mean the fans should stay hydrated. And drink responsibly.

Obviously Brady realized he was a little too flippant. But just as obvious, it was a poor choice of words.

BRADY DEFENDED receiver Chad Ochocinco, who was criticized by former Patriot linebacker Tedy Bruschi on Bruschi’s radio show Tuesday. Ochocinco had tweeted how impressed he was by Brady’s game Monday night: “Just waking up after a late arrival, I’ve never seen a machine operate like that n person, to see video game numbers put up n person was WOW.”

Bruschi responded by telling Ochocinco — who had just one catch for 14 yards against the Dolphins — to stop being in awe, to stop being a fan, stop tweeting and get into his playbook.

When asked about Bruschi’s comments, Brady said, “Everyone has an opinion on everything and none of it means anything. The only thing that means anything are the guys in this locker room and what we do every day in practice.”

As far as Ochocinco, Brady said, “I have no problems with Chad at all.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH