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Why Center Recruiting Has Changed at the Power Five Level

March 06, 2021

In the 2016 college football season, about 82% of snaps came from the shotgun or pistol formations, about a 30% increase from five years prior. The Kelly and Meyer spreads were taking over. College football’s embrace of the ‘gun hasn’t slowed; if you aren’t a service academy in modern college football, you’re running almost exclusively out of the shotgun. In 2020, according to Sport Source Analytics, the rate rose to 91%.

The NFL is following suit. 

One byproduct: a drastic change in the way centers are developed. 

ESPN’s Jared Shanker wrote on the “dead snap” revolution in 2017 (where the snapping percentage number comes from), retelling stories of college coaches who taught their centers to bear claw the football by its nose, digging the other end into the turf at a 45 degree angle, rather than grabbing by the laces to throw an underhand spiral. 

From Shanker’s piece (parentheticals are mine, for context): 

If the dead snap sounds complicated, centers assure it’s much easier than the spiral and avoids a hurtling fastball back to the quarterback. Northwestern center Brad North said his biggest flaw is overthinking, so after a 2015 season of bumbled snaps, he learned the straightforward dead snap in a few weeks. Last season (2016), Northwestern did not have one snap that prematurely ended a play.
Elite programs can often recruit centers with a background in spiral snapping, and coaches usually won’t fiddle with a lineman who is comfortable with his delivery. But a lot of schools have to fit a lineman in at center and then guide him. North was a high school tackle who had never snapped.
“I can teach a 5-year-old,” (o-line coach Tim) Drevno said. “That’s how easy it is.”

Consider the shift in technique at least partially responsible for what we’re seeing today, which is a smaller-than-you’d-expect number of high school prospects who actually played center in high school coming into the highest FBS levels and playing center. 

In recent weeks we’ve looked at center recruiting. Nebraska is recruiting huge guys—biggest in the Big Ten—and few centers. The absence of high school snappers isn’t unique to Big Red recruiting efforts, though; those guys just aren’t being taken. One of five spots on an offensive line, you’d expect somewhere around 20% of recruits to be a center, right? The reality is about 9% of Power Five linemen signed in the last five years played full-time center coming out of high school. 

There are plenty of reasons for this. 

For one, high school coaches can’t be picky. In a lot of places—particularly in Midwestern states where high schools areas are less densely populated with elite athletes—coaches have to work with what they have. 

“For us, we definitely want to put our best lineman at one of our tackles,” Kearney Catholic head coach Rashawn Harvey said. “Obviously you want to protect your quarterback so if your quarterback’s right-handed, we’re gonna put our best lineman at left tackle. … We don’t have a lot of depth at quarterback so we want to provide as much protection as possible.”

High school coaches are building outside-in. You can do more with a tackle in a scheme than a center, typically. (To that, Scott Frost says “bet,” one of the things that makes his offensive scheme so enticing.) And, like Harvey says, you need your best guys playing at the most crucial spots. 

As the game has spread out, that’s become the tackle spots. 

“There’s a little bit of a push now where you see this evolution of tackles, not so much in what they’re doing but how they’re viewed,” former Husker all-conference tackle Rob Zatechka said. “I think you’ve seen this push because it’s been viewed as that’s where the great athletes are, is at tackle, and if you have five great athletes they should be able to play any position on the offensive line.”

We see this in Nebraska’s recruiting. The after-effect being that if a guy doesn’t have a stranglehold on his starting tackle spot, he’ll slide to guard. If he’s needed at center, he’ll slide over once more. Nebraska did this just last season.The dead snap has made it more economical.

But it’s also changed the center recruiting ecosystem. 

“You don’t have as many really great centers out there,” Zatechka said. Of the 1,120 high school linemen signed to P5 programs in the last five years, 105 of them have been labeled as high school centers. Among the last 22 first- and second-team AP All-American centers, five of them were high school centers. Of the last five Rimington Trophy winners, none played center in high school.

“When I was in high school, almost every team’s center in high school was a two- or three-year starter because you had these kids who had been playing it for a bunch of years. It was a very well-developed position in the mindset of coaches,” Zatechka said. “That underhand spiral is tougher to learn. Quite frankly, it’s damn near hard to learn. … And that’s why, for years, the only guys who played center in college were guys who played center in high school and the guys who played center in high school had been playing center since youth football. 

“It’s kind of fostered this notion that anybody now can play center. I think that’s led to an overall degradation in the skillset across the board for centers.”

But it makes sense why coaches would value versatility over specificity. You open up scholarships with linemen who can cross-train and you insulate yourself from injury. Nebraska had Trent Hixson, a 2019 starter at left guard, snapping by 2020 season’s end. Harvey says one of the first things they do in a preseason is have all their linemen snap.

“If we’ve got two that are equal in snapping but one’s the better athlete, we’ll put him at tackle,” Harvey said. 

The recruiting mindset more and more is to assemble a bunch of large, athletic humans and go from there. 

“Coaches get a little enamored with all that height and all that length where you maybe don’t necessarily need that,” Zatechka said. “You maybe might need somebody like a Henry Lutovsky at guard, and I think they did a good job of recruiting him with that idea.”

Lutovsky is still huge, but he’s not a 6-9 Teddy Prochazka. And the guys playing center for a lot of high schools don’t measure close to that. If a college coach thinks the guy playing high school center is undersized, he can find a bigger guard or tackle (or tight end or defensive lineman) who has the measurable, teach them to snap, and then roll from there. 

We see guys slip through the cracks to the FCS level and lower levels of the FBS that way. 

That’s not to say there aren’t good centers out there. Things have changed and the recruiting world has adjusted. It’ll be interesting to continue to watch Nebraska’s efforts with regards to the center position. 

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