Centers of attention at the NFL Combine

Andy Hart
February 27, 2020 - 6:49 am
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INDIANAPOLIS – While they may be in the middle of the action on the field, centers rarely get much attention whether it be on game days or at events like the NFL Scouting Combine.

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Quarterbacks are and always will be the focal point of what are known lovingly as the "Underwear Olympics" in Indy. Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa are the latest in a long line of college stars passing through the Combine on the way to big NFL paydays at arguably the most important position in all of sports.

But the guys who snap the ball to quarterbacks, set the pass protections to keep those multi-million stars healthy and make all the blocking calls for every play on the ground and through the air are about as far from the spotlight as possible.

The reality is that centers play a critical role in every offense – a lesson the Patriots learned the hard way last fall when center captain David Andrews missed the entire season with blood clots in his lungs and the offense very much missed its leader in the middle of the line – and are a valuable commodity in their own right.

And like quarterback prospects, centers enter the NFL needing the ability to mentally digest each situation and direct veteran teammates on every snap.

It’s a reality that many of the center prospects at this year’s Combine – a position the Patriots may need to address depending on Andrews’ health situation moving forward – are aware of as they prepare to enter the professional ranks.

“I’m an outgoing guy. Vibrant. A lot of people are attracted to that. Being at the center position, I think that’s important, especially at the next level,” Washington center Nick Harris said, selling his own skills to teams at the Combine. “Being able to command the huddle. Being able to run the show up there and tell guys what to do. You have to be able to show that in the interview, because you only get so many football reps to show it. So being able to present yourself as such is important. I want to make that known to them.”

Harris thinks his football IQ is a personal strength and a positional necessity.

“I think one thing that’s going to translate pretty fast (in the NFL) is my football intelligence,” Harris said. “At UW, we prepared well for the schematic part of the game and the mental preparation. I’m just a nerd for the mental part and just watching film. I watch film in my spare time just for fun.

“That’s something I pride myself on, especially being a center. I tried to keep those guys going at UW. We watched a lot of film. And I watched it by myself too. At home on my TV, my iPad, my phone. With coaches. Without coaches. I just love doing it. It’s just fun. I’d rather do that than play video games. I don’t even play video games.”

Like so many interior line prospects, Temple’s Matt Hennessy has the theoretical versatility to play both guard and center. There are some mental and physical challenges with being in the middle.

“One of the more significant differences is making all of the calls at center and I would assume most teams in the NFL will be the same. And not having your snap hand right away. For that first half a second, when you’re snapping the ball, you have only one hand available. Those are the most significant differences,” Hennessy said.

There is also an almost inherent leadership quality needed at center.

“It’s something that has become part of who I am and it would be tough to do without it because I really like having control at the line of scrimmage,” Hennessy said. “I think it’s something I evolved into. Starting off freshman year, I was super comfortable making the calls at the line and then from there, it developed into more of an overall leadership role instead of just a schematic basis.”

Hennessy admits it could be weird at first to enter an NFL huddle with veterans who’s played “like 10 years” making millions of dollars and telling them what to do.

But that’s the job.

It’s not for everyone. Some, like LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry, think it may be role based more on nature than nurture, that true centers are born and not developed.

“Maybe I was born to be a center,” Cushenberry said. “I didn’t play it in high school, so I had to teach myself how to snap and get comfortable being a vocal guy. I’m not really that vocal off the field, but on the field I’m completely different. I make a lot of the calls, I’m the main communicator, and I’ve gotten used to that. Now I love it. I take pride in that.

“I feel like I’ve gotten used to being, I guess, the point guard on the field. I’ve gotten so used to it that it’s in my nature now.”

Related: Even OL prospects at the NFL Combine like Tom Brady