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Eagles rookie center Kelce rising to starting status

BETHLEHEM - Danny Watkins might not be the only rookie starting on the Eagles' offensive line this season. Jason Kelce, a sixth-round center out of Cincinnati, is getting a long look with the first team in training camp.

Sixth-round draft pick Jason Kelce is getting a lot of reps with the first team at center. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Sixth-round draft pick Jason Kelce is getting a lot of reps with the first team at center. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

BETHLEHEM - Danny Watkins might not be the only rookie starting on the Eagles' offensive line this season.

Jason Kelce, a sixth-round center out of Cincinnati, is getting a long look with the first team in training camp.

"He's a superior athlete. He's just so quick," Watkins, the first-round right guard from Baylor, said when asked about Kelce after a muggy morning practice. "I really like playing next to him. He just comes off the ball and he's so fast. He reminds me of the fastest hedgehog you've ever seen - his facial hair, and his [spiky] hair. He really does. He's just a stout, stocky, strong, fast kid. I'm jealous of how fast he is, and how quick he comes off the ball."

Kelce laughed heartily when that image was conveyed.

"I was a big fan of Sonic, so I'm going to take that as a compliment," he said.

It wasn't the only compliment Kelce (pronounced "kelsey") got yesterday.

Though Eagles coach Andy Reid tried to dance around it, the competition for the starting center job right now seems to be between Kelce and veteran Jamaal Jackson, who has torn an ACL and a triceps tendon the past two seasons. Mike McGlynn, who started last year after Jackson went down in the opener, doesn't seem to be in the picture. Ditto fringe returnees A.Q. Shipley and Dallas Reynolds.

"I think Kelce's a fine football player," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said yesterday. "He's in the middle of a learning curve. So he's got a lot of hard work and preparation [ahead]. Jamaal's got an awful lot of experience. He's coming off two major injuries the last couple of years."

Mornhinweg said he is "not leery at all" of Jackson's recent injury history, but added: "There's some good competition going on there, two different styles, two different types of player. One with experience, one very young.

"Kelce is an athletic, tough, mean type of player who's really bright. Jamaal, really smart, excellent pass protector, great amount of experience, strong player. Both are very, very good."

The subtext here is, it isn't hard to infer that Jackson (6-4, 325) is a Juan Castillo-type lineman, a powerful mauler. And Kelce, listed maybe a little generously at 6-3, 282, is a Howard Mudd-type lineman, lean and quick. (Mudd came out of retirement to coach the Birds' o-line when Castillo became the defensive coordinator.)

Mudd, as a position coach, isn't regularly made available to reporters by the Eagles. But you don't have to talk to Mudd to note that Jeff Saturday, the center Mudd developed into a five-time Pro Bowler in Indianapolis, is listed at 6-2, 295. And he even looks like Kelce, with dark hair and a full beard.

Jackson declined to speak with reporters yesterday. Last week, he talked about how Mudd is having the quarterback make the line audibles, if a blocking scheme needs to be switched at the line of scrimmage. Previously, that was one of the center's jobs, one of the reasons experience was valuable there. Jackson emphasized that he will still make the initial call, "but if it's something me and [the QB] don't see eye to eye on, I'll take his call."

"Different scheme," Jackson, 31, said. "What can I say?"

Asked about that change yesterday, Reid said: "They're still the transmitter there between the right and the left side. The good centers - you've seen Jamaal, you've seen McGlynn, you've seen Kelce, and Shipley, and Reynolds working in there - the good ones know everything, it doesn't matter what system it is. They know where the 'Mike' linebacker is, and the safeties are. They know all that. They're just an extension of the quarterback, with their hand down. I'm not going to tell you that it's easier [now], but we're asking the quarterback to do a little bit more."

Kelce is smart enough to know that he is in a nice spot for an undersized, sixth-round rookie.

"Very unexpected, to be taking reps with the first team," Kelce said yesterday. "I'm just taking it day-by-day . . . I think I got to a great situation here in Philadelphia. There's a couple of veteran centers who have played a long time, like Mike McGlynn and Jamaal Jackson, who've been able to help me out. Howard Mudd's obviously used to working with guys my size."

Kelce said Mudd doesn't reference Saturday as much as one might think, "but we do watch film on technique and stuff like that, and he's always quick to point out Jeff in the film room."

Kelce got no spring work, of course, because of the lockout, so he is learning the Eagles' offense on the fly.

"The first couple days were very rough, very rough," he said. "Yesterday and today, I felt I really got the grasp of it, especially against a four-man front."

Kelce said the change in the way calls are made "is not as much of a strain on us. We still have to ID the front, ID who everybody's going to, but the quarterback is the one who is changing it."

What does Kelce think Mudd is looking for in a center?

"I think he wants from a center what he wants from all the other positions - just block your guy," Kelce said. "There are certain techniques he teaches us, but he doesn't want it to be necessarily pretty or anything like that. He's not a big fan of making robots out of offensive linemen, like a lot of other coaches are. He wants us to use our feet and be athletic, and that's what I'm trying to do."

Reid drew a parallel with another rookie who is getting a lot of first-team action at Lehigh, almost as big a surprise - fourth-round linebacker Casey Matthews, who's still your starter in the middle, as the Eagles hold their final full practice today before the Thursday preseason opener at home against Baltimore.

"It's just a matter of, I think, physically you see he's a good athlete, he's tough, but there's more to it than that," Reid said of Kelce. "He's got to learn. It's kind of the same thing you're asking about Casey. He's a smart kid, he's picking things up, but he's got to continue to learn. Howard is asking [Kelce] to do a lot of things, and you've got to see where he ends up, but so far, he's handling the load pretty good."