INDIANAPOLIS — When Howard Mudd first laid eyes on Nick Harris four years ago, while doing some consulting work for the University of Washington football team, he couldn’t get over the similarities between the 6-1, 270-pound freshman offensive lineman and a guy he coached in Philadelphia four years earlier.
“I watched him play and said, ‘My God, that’s Jason Kelce,’ ’’ said Mudd, who was the Eagles’ offensive line coach in 2011, when the team selected Kelce in the sixth round of the draft.
“Too little, but don’t tell him that. Because he’s going to perform anyway. If you watch Jason and you watch this guy, the athleticism is remarkably similar.
“The intelligence that Nick has as far as processing things around him in stressful times is impressive. And he’s done that since he was a freshman.’’
Mudd isn’t the only one who has noticed the similarities between Kelce and Harris. So has the Eagles’ offensive line coach, Jeff Stoutland, who already has chatted twice with Harris, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month, and last week at the NFL scouting combine.
“Jason Kelce was a main topic both times,’’ Harris said.
Harris started 42 games at Washington, the first 18 at guard and the last 24 at center. He is projected as a third- or fourth-round pick.
“He’s going to be a zone center,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s 300 pounds, but it’s almost an artificial 300. He’s puffed up to get there. He’s going to play lighter.
“But having been around Kelce and seeing him play at a very high level at a lighter weight, that’s what you’re hoping you’re getting with Nick. He’s got a really quick first step, quick hands, and is great on combo blocks. You can pull him outside. He’s really, really smart. The only concern is that he can get exposed a little bit when he has heavy size over his nose.’’
The same has been said of Kelce, but it hasn’t prevented him from earning three Pro Bowl invitations and being a first-team All Pro selection the last two years.
But he turned 32 in November and isn’t going overstay his welcome. He’ll return next season but isn’t making any promises beyond that.
Nate Herbig, a 6-4, 334-pound undrafted free agent out of Stanford, backed up Kelce last year but was active for just two games and played only three offensive snaps.
Isaac Seumalo, the starting left guard, has been mentioned as a possible center replacement for Kelce when he retires. But with 10 picks in next month’s draft, there’s a good chance one of them will be a center.
Mudd, who lobbied hard for the Eagles to draft Kelce, said there is “no question in my mind’’ that Harris can be a successful NFL center.
“There are going to be times when Nick will struggle because of his size,’’ Mudd admitted. “But if you look at Jason, he struggles occasionally because of his size.
Harris has a lot of range, he added.
"When I say range, I mean the space you’re able to operate in and still get your job done. He has the same range Jason has. I don’t know that he’ll run the same 40 that Jason did. But I do know that, wherever you need him to go, he’ll get there. He’s fast. He has leverage.
“He’s got a dogged determination that he’s going to stand on top of the pile at the end of the game. That psychological makeup, along with his athleticism and his attention to technique, takes him way past any deficiencies he might have because of his size, just like it does for Kelce.’’
Harris has followed Kelce’s career closely. He’s a fanatical film-study guy, and he has watched hours and hours and hours of film of the Eagles center.
“He’s the main person I watch,’’ Harris said. “I really look up to him. I like to model my game to his and try to use any techniques or tools he uses and apply them to my game, because I think he’s one of the best technicians in the game right now at the center position.
“He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the biggest mauler guy that everybody’s in love with. But he’s been getting the job done for years. I think he’s a Hall of Famer.
“He moves well at the second and third levels. That’s something I pride myself on. Blocking people in space. Him being a smaller guy, he has to use different leverages and techniques to win blocks. That’s something I really take pride in as a center, especially being my size. You have to be able to use those things to your advantage.’’
The 2011 draft wasn’t the Eagles’ finest hour. They had 11 picks and missed the mark on most of them. Danny Watkins. Jaiquawn Jarrett. Curtis Marsh. Casey Matthews.
The lone salvation of that draft was Kelce, whom they took with the 191st pick.
“I remember watching film before the draft, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off this guy from the University of Cincinnati,’’ Mudd said. “Before the draft, you bring in guys for interviews. Usually it’s people you have some questions about. The question with Jason obviously was his size. We brought him in, and I loved him even more than I did watching him on film.
“I kept going into Andy’s office and telling him, ‘We got to draft this guy.’ On draft day, the assistant coaches weren’t in the draft room. But I bumped into Andy coming out of the bathroom before the fifth round and said, ‘We got to take him. We got to have him.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, Howard. We’re going to get him.’ And we did.’’
Four days into training camp that year, Mudd benched his starting center, Jamal Jackson, and replaced him with the undersize Kelce. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Last month, before the Senior Bowl, Mudd, who has frequently worked with Harris over the last four years, tried to arrange a phone call between Kelce and Harris.
“The comparison between the two of them is so great,’’ Mudd said. “I thought Nick would really benefit from talking to Jason. Jason was in Kansas City watching his brother [Travis] in the playoffs, but said he’d be glad to talk to him.’’
Harris, though, was reluctant to bother his football role model.
“I wanted to be respectful of his time,’’ he said.