TUSCALOOSA — Tua Tagovailoa hadn’t given it much thought before a reporter asked about it Tuesday, but even the Heisman Trophy frontrunner said a change at center could affect some aspects of Alabama’s usually reliable quarterback-center exchange this weekend.
“I think that’s something that’s probably under-looked,” Tagovailoa said Tuesday of the center-quarterback connection. “I don’t think as a quarterback you really think of that, but now that you’ve brought it up, and I’m really thinking about it, I’m not too sure. It’s a good question. I think it’s just something that (you) just day-to-day, progressively get better at.”
Tagovailoa went on to explain the biggest change when working with a different center than one you’re used to is the literal feel between the two, and how one center reacts to the quarterback’s snap cadence compared to another. There’s also the potential for how quickly the center reacts when Tagovailoa is signaling for the ball under center — when his hands are beneath the center.
“Like there’s this thing I do, let’s say the cadence is on two, so ‘Ready, set, hut,’ (and by tapping the center with) the top of my hand, the pressure would be an indicator to the center that you should snap the ball, like get ready to snap the ball,” Tagovailoa said. “If we’re going quick, regardless if they knew the count, the pressure, you know, with my hand would indicate that now you’re going to snap the ball when I say ‘go’ this time.
“(So it’s) just (about) getting reps with them and kind of telling them this is what I want, and you go from there.”
With junior starter Chris Owens still considered “questionable” for Saturday’s Top-25 matchup at No. 24 Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) could be in line for another shakeup of its first-string offensive line as fellow junior and starting right guard Landon Dickerson is expected to make the slide over to center, where the former Florida State transfer has only played one game in his career — earlier this season against New Mexico State.
“Up until Saturday, I had not played a game at center in high school or college so going in there, you know, I just thought as myself as a guy who can get the job done,” Dickerson said Sept. 10 following his start against New Mexico State. “We are trying to put the best five on the field and you know we were working with what we had on Saturday and that’s what we did.”
Should Dickerson start at center Saturday, 340-pound redshirt junior Deonte Brown is expected to make his first start of the season at right guard, with true freshman Evan Neal flanking Dickerson at left guard and junior tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. anchoring the line at left and right tackle, respectively.
Alabama has spent the first third of the regular season trying to develop its best five-man lineup up front, and depending on how Owens’ knee responds to treatment, this Saturday’s offensive line makeup could be one that the team utilizes moving forward.
Still, a midseason change in the middle can create unexpected complications, even if there is some familiarity already established.
“Sometimes if it’s a new center, the quarterback may have to take more responsibility in run-game calls or checks, things of that nature, or protections — it just depends on how each team calls it,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference. “At the same time, I don’t know if it’s as drastic as it used to be with the hands underneath the center and that exchange. … There’s different aspects with (the center’s post-snap blocking responsibility) that you have to get used to too. So that can be a challenge in what happens, but I’m sure those guys have worked on it in practice.”
Of course, Dickerson isn’t new to the center position, having worked on it throughout August preseason practice as the team rotated different players in the middle with the first- and second-team lines. In fact, Dickerson has spent considerable practice time at all three interior line positions, with a focus on right guard and center since the beginning of the season.
It’s because of that experience that Alabama head coach Nick Saban isn’t concerned about upsetting the apple chart.
“I think (the center-quarterback connection is) always important, but Landon’s played center before and he’s played it in games,” Saban said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. “(And) it hasn’t been a problem in practice.”
Tagovailoa added a change at center isn’t nearly as much of a factor when he’s fielding snaps out of the shotgun formation, which is where the Tide generally like to play on the road — like Saturday when it’ll be in hostile Kyle Field.
“Oh yeah, it’s a lot easier,” Tagovailoa said. “You start off with a clap, and we also have a mix-up of cadences as well. So if it does get too loud — which it probably will — then we’ll adjust accordingly from there.”
That adjustment could be mean a boon for Alabama’s potent passing game and a potential hinderance for a Tide ground game still trying to establish some semblance of consistency.
Roughly 74 percent of Tagovailoa’s 178 snaps out of the shotgun have resulted in a pass (131) compared to just 47 runs, while only about one-third of Tagovailoa’s 263 total plays have originated from under center (85 snaps), according to Pro Football Focus, with 58 percent (49) resulting in a run. Basically, Tagovailoa is more likely to pass on three of every four snaps out of the shotgun and run more than half the time when it snaps under center.
The only other challenge could come when Alabama tries to run its offense at an elevated pace, even out of the shotgun, as both center and quarterback effectively need to be of the same mind. But after going through some of these issues during Dickerson’s first start at center, the expectation is many of those won’t be much of a concern Saturday.
“I think the biggest challenge would be communication, trying to get everybody upfront on the same page,” Dickerson said last month, “and especially with no-huddle you have to do it quick, so we had to kind of get going in the beginning of the game and it picked up as we got going.”