In 2004, Thomas Welch was a 220-pound high school senior looking forward to his final year as quarterback at Brentwood (Tenn.) High School. Six years later, he tips the scales at 310 pounds and is looking to crack the Patriots roster as an offensive tackle. Not too many players around the league boast such a resume.
Welch enjoyed two productive years at quarterback, leading the region in passing while operating in a pro-style attack that featured a deep passing game that accentuated his big arm. Then he hurt his shoulder in a preseason scrimmage and was unable to throw. Not wanting to waste his abundant athleticism, Brentwood coach Ron Crawford moved him to tight end and defensive end and [
]()Welch delivered with 16 catches for 354 yards and four touchdowns as well as 53 tackles, five fumble recoveries and four sacks.
His quarterbacking days now over, Welch faced the possibility of the end of his playing days. At Crawford's urging, the coaching staff at nearby Vanderbilt took a look at Welch and decided to give him a shot as a tight end. After red-shirting in 2005, Welch moved to tackle when injuries thinned the Commodores ranks, and he was tested big-time in his first game.
"We took him as an offensive lineman with the understanding he could move to tight end," said long-time Vanderbilt offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.
"He was 245, 250 pounds when we got him. We had some injuries and he moved over to the offensive line. Five days later, he started against Florida and went up against [Denver's 2007 first-round pick] Jarvis Moss and loved it. He did real well. We got to work in the weight room and he didn't want to move back."
Welch recalled the story and admitted there were some anxious moments in the days leading up to the Florida game. He also pointed out that the Gators loaded defensive front included Jacksonville's 2008 first-round pick Derrick Harvey as well as Moss, which didn't give him much time to acclimate himself to his new position.
"Three of our tackles were injured so it was really by necessity," Welch said of his baptism under fire. "I stepped in and I guess they liked what they saw."
Despite his inexperience and limited size (at the time) Welch displayed great quickness and technique, particularly for a player new to the position. He immediately showed the ability to use his hands well and worked at both right and left tackle during his career. A severe ankle injury hampered him throughout his senior season, a problem that Caldwell believes affected his draft status.
"We talked to some Patriots scouts, Tim Heffelfinger was here to work with him and they were very inquisitive about him," Caldwell said. "Thomas was destined to be a higher pick had he stayed healthy. He hurt his ankle and kept trying to play — he'd go 15-20 plays a game and then the thing would go on him. Coach Belichick came down and worked out our corner and liked Thomas. He's got a special quality about him. This year against LSU he did extremely well against their great front and he told me it was the most fun he ever had playing football."
Welch's toughness no doubt endeared him to the Patriots staff. His flexibility also earned him some points and eventually New England took him at the top of the seventh round (No. 208 overall). He played the 2008 season at right tackle before moving to the left side last year. Not only did Welch insist on playing each Saturday but he also refused to sit out practice. He typically went as long as he could and only when the pain became unbearable would he go to the bench.
Welch impressed at the Senior Bowl and the Combine and got a chance to work out for Patriots offensive line coach Dante [
]()Scarnecchia. That connection had Welch hoping the Patriots would call once the draft rolled around.
"I really enjoyed my time with Coach Scarnecchia and Coach Belichick," Welch said. "That's where they're interest came in. I had an idea they were interested but you really never know. I was hoping because I really hit it off with Coach Scarnecchia."
Now he'll have an opportunity to work with one of the best developers of young linemen in football while trying to earn the right to stick around. Even though he's likely destined to begin his professional career on the practice squad, Caldwell believes he has a bright future.
"His best football is ahead of him," Caldwell said. "I had him about two full years on the offensive line. His body is still getting accustomed to carrying that weight around. Thomas is a tremendous person and he'll be a pillar in your community."
This story first appeared in the May issue of Patriots Football Weekly.