Monday, March 9, 2009

Nittany Lions in the Pros - Centers

I'm back once again for my weekly installment of Nittany Lions in the Pros. This week I'll be taking a look at the heart and soul of the offensive line, the center. The center is generally the field general of the trenches. He is responsible for making the line calls, pointing out blitzes, and making adjustments on the fly. Penn State was blessed with a superb starting center for the last three seasons. A.Q. Shipley was a steady force in the middle, constantly clearing paths for Tony Hunt, Rodney Kinlaw, and Evan Royster and keeping Anthony Morelli and Daryll Clark upright.

How have other former Nittany Lion centers fared in the NFL? And what could be in store for "little" Allan Q.? Below is the list of former Penn State centers and how well they have performed in the NFL since 1966 (or the Super Bowl Era).

Click to enlarge statistics.

The center position isn't as polished as, say, the linebacker position at Penn State. Really, by looking at the data, you can see that former Nittany Lion centers really are hit-or-miss (as a starter) in the NFL. The average Penn State center will play six seasons in the NFL, starting three of those seasons. When we break it down though, you're either a starter for a decade or a backup for a few years. There is basically no middle ground. Only one Penn State alum has made an All Pro squad and Pro Bowl as a center.

That alum would be Jeff Hartings. Hartings - the only former Nittany Lion center to be drafted in the 1st round - is the easy choice for standout performer. He is one of only three alums to play the position in the NFL for a decade or more and is the sole Nittany Lion All Pro and Pro Bowl center. Hartings was drafted 23rd overall in 1996 by the Detroit Lions. After the culmination of his 5-year rookie contract, Hartings returned to Pennsylvania to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hartings was supplanting former Steeler great Dermontti Dawson as the teams center (and Dawson had replaced the great Mike Webster). He played six seasons for the Steelers, winning a Super Bowl following the 2005 season. A year later he would retire.

2009 DRAFT
A.Q. Shipley had a wonderful career for Penn State. Though he was hesitant to shift from DT to OC during his redshirt freshman year, he did so for the best interest of the team. He was the primary backup at guard and center during the 2005 season until he was switched back to DT midway through the year. Shipley appeared in every game in some capacity as a redshirt freshman. In the spring of 2006 Shipley was shifted again to center, where he eventually won the starting job. As a redshirt sophomore Shipley started every game at center for an offensive line that allowed Tony Hunt to rush for 1,386 yards - an average of five yards per carry - and 11 TDs. The following year, despite the RB spot in some disarray, Shipley and Co. opened up holes big enough to allow the shifty Rodney Kinlaw to rush for 1,329 yards - five and a half yards per carry - and 10 TDs. He was named first team All-Big Ten by the coaches and was a candidate for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. In 2008 Shipley helped Evan Royster (1,236 yards/12 TDs), Stephfon Green (578/4), Daryll Clark (282/10), and Derrick Williams (243/3) combine for 2,339 yards and 29 TDs. Once again he was recognized as the Big Ten's best center and ended up winning the Rimington Trophy. In his four year career on the active roster, Shipley participated in 51 games with 39 starts at center (he started every game at center from 2006 through 2008).

Shipley, at 6' 1" and 304 pounds, has the build that most teams like for their centers. Unfortunately he is rather stubby, with short arms that are unable to deliver a fierce first blow to an opponent. Despite his shortcomings, Shipley's stock has been rising of late due to his standout performance at last month's combine. He was a "top performer" among offensive linemen in the bench press (tied for 4th; 33 reps of 225 lbs.), vertical jump (tied for 6th; 31.0 inches), 3-cone drill (tied for 4th; 7.46 seconds), and 20-yard shuttle (2nd; 4.40 seconds). Shipley is seen as a 5th-6th round prospect at the moment but may continue to rise up draft boards as teams examine game tape and watch him at Penn State's pro day on March 18th. Shipley will definitely be drafted and the team that takes him will have real tough, knowledgeable, and dedicated young man looking to excel at the next level. He has the right athleticism and mindset to become another decade-long contributor in the NFL.

Look for teams that utilize a zone blocking scheme (such as Denver, Washington, Oakland, Houston, and Green Bay) to take a long look at Allan Q. in the 4th or 5th round this April.

Next week I'll stay on the offensive line and take a look at A.Q.'s linemate Rich Ohrnberger and the history of former Penn State guards in the NFL.

You can see the other installments of my Nittany Lions in the Pros series here.

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