PARRISH ALFORD: Center the biggest competition spot for Rebels

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – A quarterback competition would have a lot more glitz and glamour, but center?
The quarterback picture at Ole Miss has had its questions and has them still as Saturday’s season opener approaches.
But there’s been no drama, no controversy. It’s been pretty clear that Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt likes Nathan Stanley and intends to play the third-year sophomore. How much Stanley plays may be determined in Indianapolis, not Oxford, when the NCAA finally hands down a ruling on celebrity transfer Jeremiah Masoli.
While the QB picture may have generated the most interest, the center showdown between sophomore A.J. Hawkins and grayshirt freshman Evan Swindall has been the biggest competition.
What started as Hawkins with the first team became Swindall and is back to Hawkins.
The issue seems to be not man-on-man success with the guy across the line, not assignments busts.
The issue is the center-quarterback exchange. The snap. It’s so common in football it’s become an afterthought.
But there have been too many problems for Nutt, too many fumbles for a team that last year finished 11th in the SEC in turnover margin.
“We’ve gotten better,” Nutt says.
Actual improvement remains undocumented, because the team portion of practice is closed.
Swindall, a freshman, and Hawkins, a sophomore, agree that the snaps are more consistent, and centers haven’t been the only factor in the difficulties.
One quarterback, junior college transfer Randall Mackey, had never taken a snap from under center before arriving on campus this summer.
Masoli is new to the team and the system. Only Stanley has been around.
There are more similarities between Swindall and Hawkins than just early snap struggles.
Both are Georgia kids, and both are “grayshirts,” enrolling later than other signees from their class but having the benefit of going through spring drills before their first August camp. Both are around 300 pounds, and both are versatile enough to help at guard if necessary.
Hawkins, in fact, played guard until last spring when he moved over to replace Daverin Geralds.
One of his problems in the adjustment has been the increased role that center requires.
“The biggest thing is trying to make sure everyone else on the line knows what’s going on. You have to negotiate the calls. There’s a lot more thinking before the snap than there was when I was at guard,” Hawkins said.
A wagering man would likely line up with Hawkins to win the battle. You don’t often see freshmen breaking into the lineup on the offensive line this early in the season. Bobby Massie didn’t do it last year. Shawn Andrews, an eventual All-American and the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft, didn’t do it when Nutt and his staff had him at Arkansas.
Swindall, though, is a coachable player and a quick learner. He’ll benefit from the experience of this competition and could bring quality depth to a position that has little right now.
Nutt says both centers will play, but that may be determined more by game situations.
If the snap is going good it may be tempting fate to make that substitution.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.