When former Alabama star Sylvester Croom was head coach at Mississippi State, he was being questioned at Southeastern Conference Media Days about his left tackle. The reporter added, “since that’s the most important position on the offensive line.”
Croom took some issue with the question. “I was a center,” he said. “You don’t think I’m going to say that some other position is the most important on the offensive line, do you?”
Certainly there has been more emphasis on having a quality player at left tackle since that man is the blocker who protects a right-handed quarterback’s back from a blindside pass rush.
But center probably gets the edge as the most difficult offensive line position to play and the most important.
First of all, the center handles the football on every play. Alabama is a team whose quarterback is more often in spread (shotgun) formation than under center for a hands-to-hands snap.
But a center’s job on each play starts before the snap of the ball. When the huddle breaks, the quarterback and center are both looking over the defense, particularly as to the location of the middle linebacker. That often determines whether the quarterback is going to keep the play that has been called, or audible to another call. Meanwhile, the center determines the line blocking scheme and communicates that to his offensive line mates.
And after the snap of the ball, the center also has blocking responsibility.
This is one of those seasons when Alabama must develop a new center after Ryan Kelly completed his eligibility. That process of having a capable center includes looking at men who have played the position, but also some who are listed at other positions. Bama has a history of playing its offensive linemen at more than one position, insurance against losing a player and also giving the coaches the opportunity to find the five best players on the offensive line.
Last year J.C. Hassenauer was the back-up to Kelly, but little used. In the past, right guard Bradley Bozeman has played the position. This spring Alabama Coach Nick Saban and new assistant for guards and centers, Brent Key, is looking at sophomore Ross Pierschbacher, last year’s starting left guard, at center. Other possibilities include Brandon Kennedy and Josh Casher.
This is another in our series looking at the men who have excelled at various positions in the Saban era.
In his nine years at Bama, Saban has had only four starting centers. It is difficult to rank them as all have been outstanding, three snapped for national championship teams, and all were finalists for the Rimington Award presented to the nation’s best center. Two Tide centers – Barrett Jones and Kelly -- have won the Rimington in the Saban era.
Two of the Saban centers – Jones and Antoine Caldwell -- were NFL draft choices (though that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with college effectiveness) and a third – Kelly – is expected to be drafted in an early round this year. William Vlachos didn’t fit the mold of an NFL center, but he was retained by Saban as a graduate assistant coach following his playing career and is now an analyst for the Tide.
Although Barrett Jones played center only one season for Alabama, the 2012 national championship season, he was a four-year starter on the offensive line – in 2009 and 2010 at right guard and in 2011 at left tackle. That’s starting at three different positions for three national championship teams. He was a fourth-round draft choice by the St. Louis Rams. We rank him No. 1, and the memory of him refusing to take any guff from quarterback AJ McCarron in the national championship game win over Notre Dame didn’t hurt him.
Ryan Kelly succeeded Jones and started the last three years, 2013-15, his final start being in the national championship win over Clemson. He was clearly a team leader and an outstanding blocker who had no bad snaps in his career. Additionally, in approximately 1,000 plays he had only one penalty, and no holding calls.
William Vlachos was also a three-year starter at center, starting with the 2009 national championship game win over Texas and finishing his career in the 2011 national championship game win over LSU.
There are very few teams that would have an Antoine Caldwell, the starter in Saban’s first two seasons (2007 and 2008), and not have him listed at or near the top in a ranking of centers. Caldwell was the center as Alabama changed to a new offense with two different coordinators in his two seasons. He was a third round draft choice by the Houston Texans.