Coach Tiller on Nick Hardwick

Going into the NFL draft everybody and their sister knew that the San Diego Chargers needed to draft offensive linemen. This was especially true after the team had lost eight of its top eleven offensive linemen from the year prior, including both starting tackles and both starting guards. In fact the only starting offensive lineman returning was young stud center Jason Ball, a former lineman of the year and all-rookie team member.

Then, to the surprise of many, the Chargers selected only one offensive lineman before the final round of the draft. Even more shocking was that they drafted a center, the one position that did not seem to have an immediate need. At the time the move appeared ludicrous.

Now Jason Ball is holding out in what may be the worst move by a professional football player since Gus Ferotte ran his head into a cement wall. And so while the tackle and guard position have been solidified by the return of Toniu Fonoti and the acquisition of Roman Oben, the onus is now on rookie center Nick Hardwick to anchor a line that will be charged with protecting a franchise quarterback and opening holes for the franchise running back.

The six-foot-four, 295 pound center was drafted out of Purdue with the second pick in the third round of the NFL draft. While he was drafted to provide depth at center while pushing for playing time at guard, Hardwick is now being prepared for starting duty on opening day. And while many fans may be concerned about how he will be able to handle this transition, one person who is not is Hardwick's former mentor, Purdue head football coach Joe Tiller.

"I think he'll handle it pretty well," predicts Coach Tiller. "Nick's an amazing guy really. He was a walk-on player, then two weeks before the opener his junior year we moved him from the defensive side over to guard and he started there all year and player well. Then the next year we moved him over to center and he really did a nice job for us there too."

Hardwick's versatility is one of the things that really drew the Chargers to him. When Toniu Fonoti went AWOL this off-season it appeared as if Hardwick may be given a shot at the left guard spot. And now that Jason Ball is holding out Hardwick is set to slide into the center position. Coach Tiller believes that this change best suits Hardwick's game.

"I like him as a center," says the coach. "He has the ability to make all the blocks from the center position. He used to be a wrestler, so I think that helps with that. Personally I think guard is the easier position, and I think Nick has the skills and abilities to do well at center."

When asked if Hardwick's wrestling background contributed to his success as a center, Coach Tiller was quick to answer. "Yep, absolutely. He moves really well, and can make the block on a linebacker."

While Coach Tiller preferred Hardwick at the center position, he felt strongly that Hardwick could succeed at guard as well. In fact, while at Purdue Hardwick was moved from guard to center not as a result of his play at guard, but because the team simply had a greater need at center.

"The move was strictly need driven," recalls coach Tiller. "We needed a center and we felt he was a little more natural at it than some of the other guys we had so that's why we did it."

This off-season has provided Nick Hardwick with a number of questions. He was uncertain whether he would be a guard or a center, a starter or a reserve. But what was never a question was whether or not he would be a success. At least not to Coach Tiller. Ever since witnessing what Hardwick accomplished during his collegiate career, Tiller has been confident that his former pupil can overcome any obstacle.

"Its such an amazing feat," admits the coach. "Coming in here as a walk-on and playing like he did."

Whether it is making the transition from wrestler to football player, defense to offense, guard to center, or back-up to starter, Nick Hardwick has handled each alteration masterfully. Now if he can only handle the transition from the college level to the pro level so smoothly, the Chargers will have found their offensive line one hell of a building block.

Michael Lombardo can be reached

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