I almost caught a shotgun snap during the North squad's Senior Bowl practice on Wednesday.
I should have been in no position to catch a shotgun snap. I was not on the field, but behind a fence at the back of the end zone. Kevin Zeitler's pre-practice warm-up snap sailed over Kellen Moore's head and struck the top of the fence about two feet to my right. It was the first of many adventurous shotgun snaps during the North practice, but the only one to nearly endanger a blogger.
Zeitler is doing the best he can. He's a guard, and one of the best guards in the country, an old-fashioned mauler who is excellent when pulling. He never played center in college, except for a few freshman snaps. He never played center in high school or Pop Warner. He is playing behind Ohio State's Tim Brewster at center this week because North centers have been falling like Spinal Tap drummers.
Arizona State's Garth Gerhart suffered a finger injury during Monday's practice. Joe Looney arrived from Wake Forest to replace him on Tuesday, taking the field in just shoulder pads during warm-ups while equipment managers prepared his uniform. He left the field an hour later with torn ligaments in his foot.
The latest star-crossed soul to join the North roster at center is Rishaw Johnson of University of California (Pennsylvania). Johnson was working out at TEST Football Academy in Boca Raton when he was called to Mobile on Tuesday. "I had no idea was going to get this call," he said, adding that he was so involved in personal workouts that he was not keeping track of the center injuries that were about to directly impact his situation.
He took a two-hour flight to Mobile and arrived at 10:30 PM on Tuesday night. He did not see a playbook or talk to a coach until Wednesday morning. He learned the snap counts when he walked onto the field. He knew none of the plays; his linemates told him what to do before each snapas he lined up. "I was just out there winging it," Johnson said after practice.
Under the circumstances, Johnson did the best he could. "I had a decent day blocking. I just have to get the ball up," he said. Johnson took extra reps working on his shotgun snaps at the end of practice.
At least Johnson has experience at center. Zeitler has had to learn everything about the position this week. "Evening up the stance is different," Zeitler said of the move from guard to center. "There's a lot of stuff to do before the snap." Zeitler has seen plenty of defensive fronts as a guard, and he knows what he is looking at and what adjustments and calls to make. He just never had to make them. "It's not so much that I don't see it, it's that I am getting to talk, pointing, and making sure I get the ball all the way up the way I like it before the quarterback lines up."
None of these mental aspects of the game matter much at guard. "You don't have to worry," Zeitler said. "You just worry about killing your guy."
North coach Leslie Frazier knows he put Zeitler in a tough position. "It's a little bit of a shock when you have practiced it but never really played it," Frazier said on Tuesday, showing that he may have been a little cloudy on the details (Zeitler never practiced at center, either.) "I think he has handled it pretty well."
The North's problems at center have affected their whole offense during practice. Shotgun snaps arrive at the quarterback's knees or high above his head, disrupting the timing of passing plays. Valuable reps are wasted on muffed snaps. Evaluating other players becomes difficult when the initial center exchange is botched. Brewster is experienced and reliable, but there is only one of him. He may make most of the snaps in the Senior Bowl itself, but he cannot make every snap of every practice.
The good news for Johnson is that he made it through Wednesday's practice healthy, and he gets an opportunity to prove himself against top competition that he would not get while working out at a practice facility. "It's a hell of an opportunity. I can't turn it down," he said.
Johnson took some time to talk to his TEST Academy trainers after practice, and they began giving him fine pointers about the mechanics of his snap. Johnson even searched for a football so he could perfect his grip with the help of the trainers. Unfortunately, the equipment bags had already been taken off the field. There would be no more shotgun snaps that morning.
That was probably the best thing for everyone's safety.