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3 players moving to center for the 2016 college football season

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 28: Offensive lineman Mason Cole #52 of the Michigan Wolverines during the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ohio State defeated Michigan 42-13. (Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mason Cole

Outside of an outmatched Citadel squad in Week 2, Cameron Erving was putting together an underwhelming final campaign at Florida State as its left tackle in 2014. Through Week 11 the senior was grading just above average (his +1.2 overall grade ranked 126th in the country for tackles), looking unimpressive in the run game while yielding three sacks, two hits and 14 hurries in just nine games.

Due to injuries along the Seminole offensive line Erving was for the first time in his career moved inside to center, and his season began to turn around. For the remaining five games he graded as the sixth-best center on run blocks while limiting his total pressures allowed to just five. Because of his play inside during these five games he went from likely third- or fourth-round tackle prospect to the first0round pick of the Browns (No. 19 overall), and the heir apparent to the departed Alex Mack.

Whether precipitated by Erving’s success at inside or just a general philosophical shift occurring across college football, guards and tackles transitioning inside to center is becoming more prevalent. The center is generally responsible for making pre-snap line calls and works in conjunction with the quarterback to adjust protection assignments. With the increasing importance of this non-physical trait, some teams are opting to place top-end talent inside as opposed to the traditional tackle positions.

Here is a look at three returning starters from major college programs that are being projected to transition inside this year:

1. Mason Cole, Michigan

Started at left tackle in 2014 and 2015

Mason Cole entered Ann Arbor as a freshman in 2014 and was immediately inserted as the starting left tackle. While his grades over two years reflect improvement, particularly in the run game (he graded 16th among all FBS tackles last year on run blocks), his struggles with inside countermoves lead to negative pass blocking grades both of his first two years in maize and blue, as he gave up a total of nine sacks, 16 hits and 26 hurries.

This year true sophomore Grant Newsome (28 snaps played in 2015) is projected to take over for Cole at left tackle, while the sophomore slides inside to what appears to be a more natural fit at center. Cole will be replacing Graham Glascow, who was drafted in the third round by Detroit and is expected to challenge Travis Swanson for the Lions’ starting center job.

The move inside makes sense from an athletic standpoint for Cole, as he struggled to change directions efficiently on the edge, in particular showing an inability to redirect inside on rushers working back to the “B” gap. Where he did excel was pulling out into space as well as working to the second level — a trait that will be a heavier element to his game now that he is moving inside.

While returning guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis did not play well last year, they should show improvement in the second year under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that continuity is certain to help Cole’s transition inside. Cole obviously needs to be proficient snapping with the quarterback both under center and in shotgun, but if he can show consistency with both, look for him to continue to excel as a run blocker and improve as a pass blocker due to interior support.

2. Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Started primarily at right guard in 2014 and 2015

On a squad loaded with NFL talent, Pat Elflein has been the most consistent perform on Ohio State’s offensive line each of the past two seasons. He ranked in the top 12 on run blocks among all FBS right guards both years, and is among the top draft-eligible players at the position as he enters his red-shirt junior season.

The NFL and graduation has hit the Buckeyes hard this off season, with the offensive line suffering considerably. Gone are 2015 starting right tackle Chase Farris (undrafted free agent in Detroit), 2014 and 2015 starting center Jacoby Boren and three-year starting left tackle (first-round pick of Detroit, No. 16 overall).

With so much attrition up front, it isn’t a huge surprise that as the unit’s clear best returning player, Elflein is being asked to switch to center. His experience starting 42 consecutive games should certainly help him in terms of being responsible for making line calls, allowing the coaching staff to focus the bulk of their attention on developing the three new starters on the line.

Elflein is of course on the same learning curve as Cole in terms of learning to snap the ball, but in Ohio State’s zone-read option scheme, the bulk of his snaps will be in shotgun. Outside of this, he has the traits to transition smoothly to center, and should not only be one of the top centers in the country this year but also one of the most-coveted interior line prospects in next year’s draft.

3. Ross Pierschbacher, Alabama

Started all 15 games in 2015 at left guard

When Ross Pierschbacher entered Alabama in 2014 he was considered to be a versatile offensive line prospect, with some recruiting publications considering him a guard and others projecting him at tackle. After red-shirting his first year, he started all 15 games last year for Alabama’s national championship team at left guard.

The Crimson Tide’s best lineman was undoubtedly three-year starting center Ryan Kelly, who did not yield a sack in either of the past two seasons and now departs for the Indianapolis Colts (who selected him with the No. 18 pick in this year’s draft).

Pierschbacher is now expected to take over at center this season, and while he did not give up a sack last year he yielded 17 total pressures and did not grade positively on run or pass blocks, in particular struggling with run blocks against top talent in the post season and a stretch of seven penalties taken (five accepted) over a six game stretch in the middle of the season.

His propensity to stop his feet on contact on both run and pass plays left him at times unable to sustain blocks, and this is something he will need to improve upon considerably, especially considering how quickly defenders will be able to get into him off the snap. Pierschbacher is one of three returning starters on Alabama’s offensive line (one of them being left tackle Cam Robinson, whose future is unclear pending legal issues), but next to the new center will be a brand new left guard and Alphonse Taylor, who had struggles similar to Pierschbacher last year in his first year starting at right guard. Expect some struggles early on for the Crimson Tide’s new center, but hopefully talent, experience and quality coaching will lead to an increase in production come November and December.

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