Paul Domowitch: Things really clicking for Eagles' Kelce

Posted: May 25, 2012

WHEN JASON Kelce was named the Eagles' season-opening starting center over Jamaal Jackson last summer, there were more than a few players on the team who wondered whether that really was such a good idea.

Kelce, a fifth-round pick out of the University of Cincinnati, was a cerebral player who picked up the Eagles' offense and blocking schemes last summer quicker than anybody had a right to expect, particularly considering that he didn't see a playbook until the day before the start of training camp thanks to the 4 1/2-month lockout.

He held his own in training camp and the preseason. Still, the prospect of a team that fancied itself a legitimate Super Bowl contender opening the season with a 280-pound rookie at center left some a little uneasy. And nobody was more uneasy than the guy Kelce would be snapping the ball to - quarterback Michael Vick.

"When Mike first found out I was going to be starting, he was like, 'All right, we'll see how this goes,' " Kelce said with a smile. "He admitted he was a little uneasy with the idea of a rookie center in front of him. But as the year went on, the more comfortable he got with me.

"As we've gone through the offseason, the more film we've watched together, we're head and shoulders above where we were last year as far as being on the same page and being comfortable with each other."

The Eagles' offensive line was one of the team's biggest question marks going into last season, and it wasn't just because of Kelce. It opened the year with its former left guard playing right tackle (Todd Herremans), a guy it had grabbed off the waiver wire just the week before (Kyle DeVan) at right guard, and a 295-pound journeyman left guard (Evan Mathis), who had started just seven games the previous 4 years.

DeVan eventually was replaced by first-round rookie Danny Watkins four games into the season.

The only position up front that wasn't a concern heading into the season was left tackle, which was occupied by four-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters who was on his way to a fifth.

By season's end, though, F Troop had turned into Seal Team 6. While Vick was slow to completely trust Kelce and Co., as illustrated by the number of times he bolted the pocket before his protection broke down, the Eagles' offensive line protected him pretty well, finishing ninth in the league in sacks allowed with 32, which was 17 fewer than the previous season. They finished 12th in quarterback hits allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

And they did a bang-up job of blocking for running back LeSean McCoy, who rushed for 1,309 yards and a league-best 17 touchdowns. In the Eagles' last 10 games, McCoy converted 29 of 36 situations of 2 yards or less into first downs or touchdowns. Kelce's ability to get out and pull was a big factor in McCoy's success last season.

Kelce said it took about four games for everything to really click for him last year. He points to the Eagles' 34-7 win over the Cowboys in Week 8, when he outplayed Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff, as the day the boy center became an NFL man. Kelce held Ratliff to one tackle and no sacks in that game as Vick completed 21 of 28 passes and McCoy rushed for 185 yards.

"That was the toughest opponent I had ever played against," Kelce said. "Everybody was telling me how good a player he was. Any time you're going up against one of the guys who's considered one of the best in the league, you're going to be excited to play. Those are the guys you want to play against. That's the reason you play the game at this level. To prove yourself against the best there is.

"I really felt I got aggressive. The offense got aggressive. We made all the adjustments that needed to be made. That game was the turning point for me last season."

The offensive line suffered a big blow in March when Peters, who had a dominating season last year and established himself as the game's best left tackle, ruptured his Achilles' tendon, then re-ruptured it earlier this month. He will miss the entire season.

The Eagles quickly went out and signed the top free-agent left tackle on the market - Demetress Bell. Bell is good, but he isn't Peters. He's also got durability issues, missing 17 games over the last three seasons.

"I was in a state of shock when I first heard" about Peters' injury, Kelce said. "I guess I've accepted it a little more by now. I'm in the fifth stage of grief. We had all five guys coming back. Jason is the best offensive tackle in football.

"But I'm excited to work with Demetress. [Offensive line coach] Howard [Mudd] has a lot of great things to say about him. So far, he's looked good in practice. Obviously, it's hard to tell before we put the pads on how a guy is going to handle the new techniques and everything. But he seems to be a fast learner. He fit into the offensive line group very quickly."

A year ago, Kelce was back home in Cleveland waiting out the lockout, waiting to get his first glimpse of the Eagles' playbook, waiting to find out just how big the difference was between the Big East and the NFC East.

With 16 NFL starts under his belt, he knows the night-and-day difference now and has proven he can play - and play well - at this level. With a full offseason to prepare, Kelce is hoping to take the next step in his development.

"A full offseason for any position where a lot of mental duties are involved is important, whether it's the quarterback, the center, the middle linebacker or safety," he said. "Those guys have to know mentally the offense and defense in and out. To be able to make adjustments and to be able to make corrections as the game goes along. We're so far ahead of where we were last year that it's ridiculous."

Kelce will be able to lighten Vick's mental load this season by taking a bigger role in the protection calls.

"Last year, my involvement in protections was just to get us started," Kelce said. "Whatever the rule was for the protection that week, I would get us started. But it was Mike's job to make the corrections, make the audibles.

"Now, they're giving me a little bit more leeway to make those corrections so that we're not eating as much time off the clock with me making a call and Mike having to change it. We're trying to eliminate as much of that as we can."

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