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A football team’s success starts in the middle of the offensive line

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Most fathers, if you asked them to be completely honest, would probably admit that they dream of their son growing up to be the starting quarterback or running back for the high school varsity team. Tony DeRosa is teaching his 11-year-old son to be a center. Wait … say what? DeRosa, the head football coach at Egg Harbor Township High School, has been coaching for a couple decades and he knows better than most that the success of any quarterback, running back – and offense in general – starts with the guy snapping the ball. The average fan in the stands at a high school football game doesn’t even know who the center is, much less what he does and all he is responsible for. Heck, they probably don’t even know what number he is. “He’s No. 65, right? No, wait, I think he’s No. 58. I’m pretty sure.” DeRosa isn’t an average fan. He’s a well-schooled football man who has had a lot of success as a head coach, and his philosophy is simple – put your smartest kid at center. Wait, doesn’t a center just snap the ball and block whoever is in front of him? Football coaches everywhere give a roll of the eyes and a knowing smile when asked a question such as that. “There are so many pre-snap reads. I like having smart kids there, and also a tough kid there as well because they are facing nose guards and there are a lot of 1-on-1 battles,” DeRosa said. DeRosa has a first-year varsity starter, junior Cooper Fiadino, at center this season, but Fiadino is far from inexperienced. He’s been playing center since he entered high school. Egg Harbor Township's Cooper Fiadino blocks during a scrimmage game against Williamstown. Fiadino is in his first year as a starting center for the Eagles, but has been playing the position since he entered high school as a freshman. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) Egg Harbor Township’s Cooper Fiadino blocks during a scrimmage game against Williamstown. Fiadino is in his first year as a starting center for the Eagles, but has been playing the position since he entered high school as a freshman. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) “He’s a great student of the game,” DeRosa said. “He’s a great student in the classroom and he’s a very hard worker, so he has all the tangibles you want. He also has the intangibles, and we continue to work on the tangibles. My son is a center, too, in youth football, and the biggest thing we talk about is being able to snap and step at the same time. That’s very hard to learn. My son is 11 years old and we work on that every day.” “You have so many responsibilities. Not just knowing the snap count, but knowing who to block, all the zone schemes,” Fiadino said. “You have to call out the zone calls, the blocking formations. You have to check the linebackers and call out if a linebacker is blitzing.” “The center is really the hub that makes the wheel go around. In our offense, not only does he snap the ball, which is very important because the timing of the offense is all keyed on the snap, but the center also comes out and makes all the line calls,” said Oakcrest head coach Chuck Smith. “He’s really the captain of the whole offensive front. He has to identify who we are blocking based on the blocking schemes we employ.” Fiadino said becoming a good center is not an easy process. It’s something that has taken years for him to get comfortable with. “I used to play guard and you just have to know where you are going. Now I have to know more about the snap counts and you have to practice even more with firing out low. There’s a difference between just firing out low and firing out low after you snap the ball,” Fiadino said. DeRosa said that the key to any offense – whether you are running the Delaware Wing-T, the pro set, the spread, the run-and-shoot, whatever it might be – is having a good center who knows what he is doing and can create cohesion on the offensive line. “Just like in baseball where you need a good catcher, pitcher and center fielder, you need to be strong up the middle,” DeRosa said. “You need a good center, quarterback and fullback and on defense you need a good nose guard and middle linebacker. When you are good up the middle you can work everything else.” It may sound obvious that a center’s most important job is simply snapping the ball. And generally that part of the game is taken for granted since it happens dozens of times during every game. What many fans may not realize, however, is the time and effort centers and quarterbacks put into this seemingly simple exchange. “The number one thing a center has to do is get the ball back to the quarterback and we work on that every single day. We want hundreds of snaps before practice. We’re an under-center team and we’re also a shotgun team, so we have two types of snaps,” DeRosa said. “Number two, a lot of teams put their best defensive player at nose guard and (the center) has to be able to block that nose guard. If you have a good center and he can single-block that nose guard, that opens up another guy to get up on a linebacker. And the third thing is (the center) has to make the calls. He has to know what the guard is doing, what the tackles are doing.” “It’s not easy. With all the things you need to know on every play, it’s not a simple responsibility,” Fiadino said. “But we go through so many reps in practice that you get used to it.” Smith echoed DeRosa’s sentiments. It may sounds completely elementary, but when it comes to the center-quarterback exchange there’s no such thing as too many repetitions. “It’s multi-faceted as a center. There really is a lot of responsibility, they have a lot on their shoulders,” Smith said. “The line calls, the snap – and that’s not a simple thing. It sounds simple, but it’s not. We work on that constantly in practice. If the snap is off it throws off the timing of the whole offense. “We have to indentify people want want to target (to block) no matter what the scheme is, and we go through that on every single play. If that’s off, then everything else is going to be off, so it’s important that we get that right. Usually our center is a very smart individual,” Smith said. DeRosa said there is a prototype when he looks for players he wants to groom as future centers. He wants tough, smart kids with powerful legs who can process information quickly and be fast off the ball. “What I look for in a center is, he’s not the 6-foot-5 guy. You know those guys are tackles. You usually know who is a guard is. You look for maybe a shorter, more squat guy who can get off the ball,” DeRosa said. “In college games I do watch a lot of the centers and see how they execute. I was watching Army and the guy is in a four-point stance and he’s getting off the ball. I like that, that’s good stuff.” One reason Mainland may be in store for a bounce back year after last year’s 4-6 campaign is because of seasoned center Michael Bucca. He’s a prototypical center. A senior, 5-foot-10, 233 pounds, squat, with a mean streak. He helped plow open a huge hole for running back Qwin Vitale in the Mustangs’ season opener. That touchdown gave Mainland a 14-13 lead and helped change the momentum in an eventual 28-13, lightning-shortened victory over Pleasantville. Perhaps one reason Egg Harbor Township has enjoyed so much success under DeRosa is because he constantly is looking to create depth at key positions, one of which is center. Right now he has four centers in the program from varsity down to the freshman level. “We’re always trying to create depth at center. Two things you always want to have depth in, and that’s quarterbacks and centers,” DeRosa said. “Everything starts right in the middle and works its way out from there. When you have a big play to the outside it has to start with those guys in the middle.” Smith has the luxury of having a three-year starter, Connor Dindak, at center. However, in 2014 Smith will be on the lookout for a replacement once Dindak, a senior, graduates. That means cultivating a new signal caller on the offensive line, which isn’t easy when you are talking about evaluating freshmen and sophomores who generally have limited experience at the position. ” We’ve been running the spread for a long time. It’s really with the snap, being able to snap the ball on target and taking a step as he snaps. So we’re really looking at that aspect first and we can work with the other stuff hopefully,” Smith said. Whoever does replace Dindak for the Falcons likely will move into an experienced line. Because those players are getting experience now. Smith said he is starting three sophomores on the offensive line this year. “Connor plays almost the role of a coach on our offensive line,” Smith said. “It really helps the younger kids learn to have somebody with that much experience.” So what’s it like being a center? “It’s not easy. With all the things you need to know on every play, it’s not a simple responsibility,” Fiadino said. Fiadino summed up what being a center is like in just five words. “It’s not a glory position.” Said DeRosa, “The only time you notice the center is when there is a fumbled snap. And 99 percent of the time it’s the quarterback’s fault, not the center’s. And I always tell my quarterbacks this: If there is a fumbled snap, you take the blame for it, because (centers) never get the credit (when things go well).” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays.

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