The spread offense, and its variations, require the man in the middle to be athletic enough to multi-task on every play.

By DAVID La VAQUE, Star Tribune

Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, the athletes who pile up yardage and score touchdowns, long have been considered football’s skill positions.

But running an effective spread offense — a wide-open formation gaining popularity in Minnesota high school programs — owes much to the less-heralded position of center.

Take Blaine senior Kyle Foster, for example. Moved to starting center this fall, Foster touches the ball every play and must snap it about 5 yards to quarterback Eric Kline. And just getting it there is not enough. If the play is designed to go right, the ball must be to Kline’s right. Missing a specific spot, forcing Kline to even lean, hop or bend, can derail an entire play’s timing. If that is not enough pressure, some 250-pound nose tackle is crashing into Foster a split-second after the snap.

“We put Kyle at center this year because we wanted our best offensive lineman to be our center,” Blaine coach Shannon Gerrety said. “Without a good snap, nothing happens.”

Blaine, Eagan, Minnetonka and Osseo run the spread or other similar formations that ask a lot of a center. Coaches of those programs agree that the center position has evolved. Good ol’ grit is not enough. Centers must now possess equal parts athletic grace. Foster wrestles in the winter and is a thrower for the Bengals track and field team. Eagan center Tommy Bodeker starts in goal for the Wildcats’ hockey team, and Osseo’s Matt Catton plays basketball. Minnetonka’s John Dawson is not a multi-sport athlete but is nimble enough to pull and lead running plays.

The emphasis on athleticism trumps even size. Eagan coach Rick Sutton has been running the spread offenses in his programs for more than a decade.

“The center has always been the guy we want to be the most athletic.” Sutton said. Bodeker (200 pounds) and Foster (235) are not the biggest linemen on their respective teams and are often lighter than the opposition’s nose tackles. But both were recruited to play center because as Sutton said, “The center has to be a guy who is doing the little things right all the time.”

Gerrety called Foster a “ferocious and determined” competitor, something the coach has long looked for in the position. Gerrety was Blaine’s defensive coordinator 15 years ago when the shotgun formation began popping up around the state. To counter, Gerrety instructed his nose tackles to get after the center, to break him down through constant pressure.

So when Blaine installed the spread before the 2008 season — a switch that moved Blaine from a stagnant program to Prep Bowl runners-up — he knew “we couldn’t mess around.” He instructed assistant coaches to evaluate potential centers as early as ninth grade.

And like Sutton, Gerrety issues each of his centers a football for the summer. Foster and Kline worked on snaps twice a week last winter and three times a week this summer. Each session included 30 to 50 snaps. But Foster’s offseason work did not immediately translate into success.

“I had a lot of trouble the first few days of two-a-days,” Foster said. “I got too focused on blocking before I would get the snap off. And the snap has got to be there. When I was a tackle, I could get away with a mistake once in awhile. At center, every play has to be perfect.”


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