MORGANTOWN - When Pat Eger found out he was being asked to play the only position on the offensive line he'd never played before, the first thing he did was seek counsel.And where better to go - at least at West Virginia - to find out the tricks of playing center than to the guy who held down the position for the last four years, Joe Madsen?"After pro day he was over at my house and I said, 'Joe, I'm having trouble with my snaps,'" Eger recalled. "He said, 'Honestly, I don't know what to tell you. It's just natural for me.'"Well, so much for passing down knowledge.As West Virginia progresses through spring drills - the Mountaineers are off this week for spring break and resume a week from today - there are plenty of highly visible replacement battles going on, particularly on offense. Geno Smith has to be replaced at quarterback, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as the go-to receivers, and the entire middle of the offensive line is open with the departure of guards Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun and Madsen at center.And perhaps the vacancy at center is just as visible and critical as any other. Sure, the quarterback and receiver battles are the sexy ones, right? But what about that center's job?Center snaps have simply not been an issue the last four years. Madsen might have had a handful of bad snaps in the 50 games he started over that time. Because of that, the position was largely taken for granted.If there's a misfire on a snap in the opening game of the 2013 season, though, suddenly everyone will be interested in the center position.And just so you know, if Eger steps into the job and seamlessly replaces Madsen, it won't be because he's a natural.
"It's been rough. The first day in pads my snaps were all over the place,'' Eger said. "I've never been used to somebody being two inches away from your face as soon as you come off the ball. But I'm starting to get used to it.''To compound matters, Eger is required to learn two snaps, not one. The great majority of the time the Mountaineers line up in the shotgun. But toward the end of last season coach Dana Holgorsen more and more liked moving his quarterback up to the line of scrimmage, just to present some different looks."They're both new to me,'' Eger said. "There's a lot less room for error [in the shotgun snap]. If they're under center the ball can't go five yards to the left or the right."I got it down pretty well in the offseason, but whenever you line up and do it with someone in front of you hitting you in the face it gets a little bit different.''
Not that Eger is complaining, mind you."I like anything up front,'' Eger said. "Anything in the trenches I have fun with.''
Well, if that's the case then Eger has had plenty of fun during his previous four years at West Virginia. The 6-foot-6, 302-pounder will be a fifth-year senior in the fall and he's played every position across the line. He was a reserve at left tackle early in his career and has played both guard spots.He started 12 games at right tackle as a sophomore in 2011, then the first six last season at the same spot. He was replaced for the second half of the season, mostly by Curtis Feigt, but then when Madsen was declared ineligible for the Pinstripe Bowl in December he re-emerged as the starting right guard in place of Jeff Braun, who moved to center."I've played pretty much everywhere so far,'' Eger said.Center, though, is a different animal. Not only is there the responsibility for getting the ball back to the quarterback, there's that proximity to the guy on the other side of the ball. Defensive linemen who line up over the guards and tackles often like to have a buffer so they can take an angle. Nose guards tend to want to disrupt things a bit more, and what better way to do that than to hit the center before he's even finished his follow-through.And if that's not enough, the center is also generally charged with making the line calls. It has to be him because he's in the best position to see both sides of the defensive front."You have to make the calls, but when it comes down to it as soon as the ball is snapped everyone is just playing physical,'' Eger said. "Everyone has to be smart across the board then.''
There's also the not-so-minor issue of working for the third offensive line coach in the last four years. Ron Crook replaced Bill Bedenbaugh just before spring practice began. Bedenbaugh had been around for just two years after replacing Dave Johnson.But like the move to center, Eger doesn't dwell on that."As a player, there's not much you can do about it,'' Eger said. "You put your head down and you work. I'm on my third offensive line coach right now. It's been a blessing and it's been bad thing at the same time. You learn something new every time, but it's always an adjustment.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com
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