- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The question was about learning the center position on the fly, and how to explain how challenging a task that is for an inexperienced lineman.

Bill Callahan, the Redskins offensive line coach, took a big gulp of air and shook his head a bit before answering.

“I don’t know if anybody really understands that,” he said, “but it’s probably the most difficult task in offensive line play.”

The reason it’s so difficult is that the center, in addition to snapping the ball to the quarterback, has to control the communication and echo every line call. It’s not just gaps, angles and assignments that make a center different from a guard, even though many interior linemen, at one point or another, do both, as Spencer Long has.

May and June are optimistic months in the NFL. Players pronounce themselves in the best shape of their lives, coaches promise new, aggressive schemes and then September comes and many of those assurances are proven hollow. But when Long says that he’s “light years ahead of where I was last year,” keep Callahan’s words in mind.

“He’s come a long, long ways, having not ever played the center position and then being thrown into the lineup against New York in the third game last year, and playing center for the first time in the NFL, he’s come a long ways,” Callahan said. “So, I’m really proud of him.”

Long was drafted as a guard, and played left guard in 2015, his second season with the Redskins but the first in which he got substantial playing time. Then, in week three against the Giants last season, center Kory Lichtensteiger went down and Long replaced him.

The first time Long practiced at center was during OTAs that year. Callahan makes sure that every player he’s responsible for is cross-trained because of the high rate of injury along the offensive line, and because there aren’t enough spots on the active gameday roster for backups all along the line to dress.

Practice time is precious, but cross-training everyone is important enough to Callahan to be sure he finds the time.

“There’s going to be a point in time, whether it’s in the post-practice, pre-practice, with the center-quarterback exchange, or even in a tight inside team drill where we’re just focused in on the running game,” Callahan said.

Still, running a few drills here and there is a far cry from blocking Olivier Vernon. Long wound up starting 12 games in 2016 and was part of a strong Redskins offensive line that allowed only 23 sacks, but he was learning on the fly.

“I think anytime you play center for the first time in your career and it’s in the National Football League, you’re going to have some rough spots, but I think the more confidence he gets, especially just snapping the ball to the quarterback, that was new to him – shotgun snaps,” said coach Jay Gruden. “…I think he’s really becoming very sure of himself in that regard as far as making the calls, making the right calls, snap counts, his snaps are a lot better than they were this time last year.”

Don’t forget that needing centers is Gruden’s self-proclaimed worst fear as a coach.

Now, Long feels comfortable making the calls. Callahan said that has allowed Long to take on more of a leadership role with his teammates. Overall, the line has had time to gel.

“Everybody’s working together well and everybody’s on point with the calls mentally,” Long said. “I mean, I feel like we could, we already have the whole playbook right now, we could go play a game and that’s saying a lot for OTAs.”

Long said he doesn’t think much about the fact that he’s eligible for a contract extension when he’s on the field. Going into the last year of his rookie deal, though, it’s a consideration.

He’s cemented as a starter and the centerpiece to a unit that should be a team strength this upcoming season. And, in his coaches’ own words, he’s taken on the most difficult task in offensive line play and been a solid solution to Gruden’s worst fear.

Not a bad pair of negotiating chips for a guy who just figured out shotgun snaps a year ago.

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