There has been some hand-wringing and skepticism over the Pittsburgh Steelers selecting Kendrick Green, who primarily played guard at Illinois, to move into the center void created by the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey. But the reality is that they know more of what Green can do as a center than they did Dermontti Dawson when they first drafted the Hall of Famer in 1988 in the second round.
As Gerry Dulac writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the only center experience Dawson had during his college career was when he was working on the scout team. Green at least has started a handful of games playing center, and he looked pretty natural doing it. But the lack of experience will inevitably raise questions, especially when you follow in the footsteps of a great player, as Dawson also did with Mike Webster.
“I just remember when the media got hold of it everyone asked me, ‘do you think you will be a good center, you’re following Mike Webster?’”, he recalled to Dulac, after saying that he had no problem making the transition to center. “I said just give it time and we’ll go from there”.
Dawson would start five games as a rookie, though they all came at guard, before moving to center in 1989 after Webster signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs. He would not miss a start for 10 consecutive years, ultimately playing 13 seasons in Pittsburgh with 181 starts in 184 games — nearly all at center.
It’s no small thing to change a center, especially within a long-established quarterback-center relationship. Pouncey had been Ben Roethlisberger’s snapper for the majority of the latter’s career, over the past 11 years, though with two years in there nearly absent due to injury.
Moving from Pouncey to Green, assuming that he starts, will come with some hurdles. Dawson concedes that there are some important distinctions between playing center and any other position on the line: After all, you literally control the football.
“You’re almost like the quarterback of the offensive line”, he told Dulac. “All the calls are predicated on you, based on your protection, when audibles are called, you got to know where to go. You have to know where the mike is inside, whether the mike rotated — make sure you know where mike has rotated. Then make the audibles”.
The former Steelers center also said that it was an adjustment moving further inside and lining up regularly against nose tackles, citing that as the toughest thing he had to get used to making the position switch.
The thing that ultimately sold teams on Dawson as a center was his superior athleticism, which, along with fellow Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson, helped revolutionize the position and gave way to players like Pouncey decades later.
Green possesses a similar level of athleticism in him, matched with an aggressiveness that comes from his defensive background. While he is not the perfect prospect in terms of size — he has shorter than ideal arms, for example — the Steelers feel confident in his long-term ability to make the transition and succeed.