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April 7, 2012

Projecting success at center no easy task

The top two center prospects in the Class of 2013 have plenty in common.

Killeen (Texas) Harker Heights' Darius James and Marietta (Ga.) Walton's Brandon Kublanow both have the intelligence that coaches demand at the position. Both play with a physical style. Both are versatile.

Oh, and there's one other thing: Neither plays center full-time for his high school team.

Kublanow said he mainly played guard at Walton last season, though he feels comfortable at any position on the offensive line. James moved from center to guard for the last few games of his junior year and may play more guard than center this fall.

"It's just where they need me the most," Kublanow said in regard to his position.

The fact that the nation's top two center prospects aren't full-time centers in high school is understandable to a certain extent. Their coaches want to utilize their ability to play multiple positions while also capitalizing on certain matchups.

But it also helps explain why it's so hard to predict which high school players will develop into the best centers.

Four of the last seven players to win the Rimington Trophy given annually to the nation's best center were two-star prospects. Two of the four centers to get selected in the first round over the last five NFL drafts also were two-star recruits, and three of them were actually rated as guards or tackles during the recruiting process.

For comparison's sake, 14 of the 25 offensive tackles drafted during the first round over the last five years were four-star or five-star prospects, though three of those 25 were recruited at different positions. Only five of them were two-star prospects.

And the last four offensive tackles to win the Outland Trophy included one three-star recruit (Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi), two four-star prospects (Alabama's Barrett Jones and Wisconsin's Joe Thomas) and a five-star pick (Alabama's Andre Smith).

"The center's the quarterback of the offensive line," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "There's a lot more between the ears - that you can't evaluate physically on film or at a game - that comes with being a tremendous center. Very few have the measurables coming out of high school. They're usually a couple of inches too short or a few pounds too light.

"Projecting tackles is difficult, but I think we do a good job with it. Some of them are as good as they're going to be by the time we rank them, and they never get better. But center is definitely one of those hard positions like quarterback to project."

Darius James and Brandon Kublanow are the only junior centers rated as four-star prospects (there are no five-star centers). Here's a closer look at each of them.
Height: 6-5
Weight: 319
High school: Killeen (Texas) Harker Heights
Rank: 92
Committed to: Texas
Quotable: "He's just a big, mean kid, and really athletic. A lot of schools were recruiting him on the defensive line, and that just shows his athleticism. A lot of times, centers after they snap the ball have to get off and make all kinds of different blocks and go all over the place. They need to have pretty good feet. The fact he played defensive tackle as well and was good enough to be heavily recruited there is a big deal. He plays all three positions [on the offensive line] in high school, but he actually plays center in high school, which is something I like to see. Most of the time, the best linemen all play tackle and you sort of have to project them at center." - Rivals.com Texas recruiting analyst Brian Perroni.
Height: 6-3
Weight: 290
High school: Marietta (Ga.) Walton
Rank: 243
Committed to: Undecided. He has made recent trips to Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Miami. He told UGASports.com this week that he also was planning a visit North Carolina.
Quotable: "He can bench 430 pounds, and it's not just that he can bench 430, but he uses that strength to his advantage. He plays with an unbelievable amount of leverage. It's derived from toenail to head. His strength is full body, but he's also incredibly sound fundamentally. He's the meanest and nastiest player in the country. It's not uncommon to look at the field and see Brandon on top of the ground over an opponent. Off the field, he's as friendly a kid as you can possibly find. On the field, he's not dirty, but he's mean, nasty and aggressive. He has all the skills you're looking for in an offensive lineman. A lot of guys have big bodies, but they're passive-aggressive types of kids. That's not him. He's not intimidated by anyone." - Rivals.com Southeast recruiting analyst Keith Niebuhr.
Indeed, many of the top college centers of the last decade were lightly regarded prospects.

The classic example is Alex Mack, a former two-star recruit from Santa Barbara (Calif.) San Marcos. At the time Mack signed with California, his Rivals database profile listed his weight at 255 pounds - 40 pounds lighter than the average weight of the top 10 centers in the Class of 2013.

California's coaches remained eager to take a chance on him. The Golden Bears liked his intelligence. They loved his tenacity. And they also believed his success in another sport could make him a better football player.

"Alex was a very good wrestler," California offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. "He really understood leverage and all those things. At the center position, the defense, they're only inches away from you. To understand leverage and how to basically grapple with somebody is a big advantage."

Mack rewarded California's faith in him by developing into an All-America center. He won the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10's top offensive lineman in back-to-back seasons and also received the 2008 Draddy Trophy given each year to college football's top student-athlete. He has since emerged as a Pro Bowl performer for the Cleveland Browns, who selected him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

He's one of many elite centers from the last decade who was overlooked during the recruiting process.

The list of recent two-star prospects at this position also includes first-round draft pick Eric Wood (Louisville) as well as Rimington Trophy winners Greg Eslinger (Minnesota), Dan Mozes (West Virginia), Jonathan Luigs (Arkansas) and Jake Kirkpatrick (TCU).

Moreover, the two Rimington winners over the last seven years who had four-star ratings weren't even considered centers during the recruiting process. A.Q. Shipley signed with Penn State as a defensive tackle recruit and played both offense and defense early in his college career before making a full-time move to center. Florida's Maurkice Pouncey shifted from right guard to center in his sophomore season.

Michalczik understands why it's tougher to predict the future success of a center.

"There's a prototypical first-round offensive tackle," Michalczik said. "He's 6-7, long-armed, almost a basketball player type of athlete. At center, even in the NFL, they're 6-2, 6-3 or 6-4 guys. ... It's kind of a harder one to evaluate in that they're kind of hidden in there. You can't always see them move."

And there also are other factors at work. For instance, James and Kublanow likely aren't the only future college centers playing elsewhere on the line for their high school teams.

High school coaches often like to put their most physically imposing lineman at offensive tackle. An example of that is Wood, who played tackle for a state championship team at Cincinnati (Ohio) Elder before becoming a four-year starting center at Louisville and an eventual first-round draft pick.

When high school coaches seek a center, they often are looking for brains as much as brawn. Those guys often develop into outstanding high school centers, but they generally lack the physical skills to play big-time college football.

There is such a dearth of big-time college prospects actually playing center in high school that Rivals officials are struggling to find centers for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. This year is particularly tricky, as James and Kublanow are the only 2013 centers listed as four-star prospects. James has committed to Texas, while Kublanow remains undecided.

"Honestly, in high school, with most of the simplified offenses or even with some of the complex offenses, you want your best guys outside, or at the very least [at guard] and just run off them," Farrell said. "It's very rare in the high school level to put your best player at center."

So it should come as no surprise that James and Kublanow are currently being used the way they are. When you have a future Division I performer multifaceted enough to play anywhere on the line, why not make the most of the situation?

Harker Heights coach Mike Mullins said he likes to capitalize on James' versatility by moving him around on the line based on the type of defense his team is facing each week. James is such a well-rounded performer that he also has played defensive tackle at Harker Heights.

"If we get a nose guard, we'll probably play him at center because he can single-block him at times," Mullins said. "If we get an even front without a nose guard, we move him to guard because we feel the matchups are better."

Although he expects to play center in college, Kublanow also has played all over the line for his high school team.

"It doesn't really matter to me," Kublanow said. "I can play anything."

If James and Kublanow are wondering how their ability to play multiple positions could pay off at the next level, they should take a look at the career Barrett Jones is putting together at Alabama.

Jones was rated as the No. 1 center in the Class of 2008 when he graduated from Cordova (Tenn.) Evangelical Christian, but he played right guard his first two seasons at Alabama and won the Outland Trophy last fall as the Crimson Tide's left tackle. Jones finally is working out at center this spring as he prepares for his senior season.

College coaches across the country are searching everywhere for the high school junior who could develop into the next Jones. If they ever find the guy, there's a decent chance he'll be playing somewhere other than center.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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