After Koa Misi's switch to middle linebacker went from an experiment to a permanent change (for the foreseeable future), the Miami Dolphins have brought out the test tubes again for another position-switch experiment.
Shelley Smith slid over from the right guard position that he held during offseason workouts to the center position to replace an injured Mike Pouncey. Smith, who was a question mark at right guard before the switch, has started eight of the 24 games he's played in his three-year NFL career.
Smith, a former undrafted free agent, is moving to a full-time zone-blocking scheme. This suits Smith's strengths as he is at his best when on the move. However, this shift will test Smith like never before. Smith has never played the center position, but Miami made him practice snaps in the offseason in anticipation that Pouncey miss a few games due to suspension for his role in the "bullying" scandal.
Smith has struggled so far with his snaps early into this experiment. The first play of the first practice of training camp was a botched center/quarterback exchange between Smith and Ryan Tannehill.
Both Smith and Sam Brenner, the other front-runner to fill in for Pouncey while he misses up to seven games this season recovering from a recent hip surgery, struggled with their shotgun snaps in the first day of training camp. Though the snapping issues weren't as present on the second day of camp, not being able to trust that the center will put the football safely in the QB's hands is extremely detrimental and could lead to game-deciding turnovers.
Considering that the Dolphins will operate a majority of their offense from the shotgun, not unlike 2013, it is vitally important that the C/QB exchange is consistently clean. I used to be unsure on who would win the starting job as all the candidates brought something different to the table, but now I'm thinking that the starting job will be determined by who can snap the ball into Tannehill's chest most consistently...
If the two leading candidates continue to struggle with their snaps, then it will open the door for Tyler Larsen, the lineman with the most experience at the center position not named Pouncey, to steal the job. Larsen, the starting center at Utah State for the four years, has started 52 consecutive games in the center of his team's offensive line and is the lineman (other than the other undrafted free agent centers) who has most recently delivered shotgun snaps in game action.
Larsen still has to work his way up from the JV team (Brenner is the second team center), but if he can impress the coaches against inferior talent then this former four-year starter can continue his streak of starting Week 1 for his team.
But even if Larsen gets the call up, will he be able to handle more than the snaps and be able to move 300-pound NFL defensive lineman? That can't be known until it happens, but my guess is he would struggle.
Nate Garner is a viable last resort to start at center. I believe the team would rather keep Garner on the shelf as he is the back-up for nearly every spot on the line, but if the snapping issues linger or the candidates struggle moving 300-pound men, Garner will likely be asked to step in and provide quality starts (which he can do).
It will be a long process to find the new center, but this team really cannot afford the time it will take to find him. For an offensive line that is looking to build cohesion and chemistry as soon as possible, it's vital that the starting center is determined sooner rather than later.
Chemistry, as was discussed/debated in the comment section of the article I posted yesterday (which you can find here), is vitally important on the football field, nowhere more so than the offensive line (especially in a zone-blocking scheme).
The zone-blocking scheme, outside of athleticism, requires proper technique (footwork is very important) and coordination between offensive lineman who often apply combination blocks with other offensive trenchmen to create cutback lanes for the running back. Knowledge of tendencies of your fellow line-mates is a must so that every zone can be accounted for and blocked.
A center is faced with even more pressure as he must call out blitzes and checks to the rest of the line. Cohesion is absolutely vital with this group and is part of the reason the line was so bad in 2013.
The experimenting to find Pouncey's replacement must end soon. This unit, which will feature five new opening day starters, must establish a starting five and begin to build chemistry and cohesion as soon as possible.