Thursday, September 15, 2011
Rookie Kelce fitting in among Eagles vets
By Dan Graziano
Rookie sixth-rounder Jason Kelce has earned a spotting spot on Philadelphia's offensive line.
He knows he's not a charity case. Jason Kelce can look at the Philadelphia Eagles' inactives list from Sunday's season opener and see first-round pick Danny Watkins on there. From the day he was drafted, everybody was sure Watkins would be the Eagles' starting right guard in that game. But he couldn't pick up the blocking schemes in time, and so he was a healthy scratch. These Eagles aren't messing around. They're thinking Super Bowl, and they're not interested in linemen who have to learn on the job.
"They want to play the best five guys, and the guys who are going to help them are going to play immediately," Kelce said in a phone interview Thursday. "They obviously have confidence in me that I'm able to do that, and I appreciate that."
Kelce was drafted two days after Watkins was, in the sixth round. It's said around the Eagles that he was the hand-picked choice of new offensive line coach Howard Mudd. So although it was a surprise to see Kelce getting center reps with the first team over veteran Jamaal Jackson when training camp began, it made sense on some level. At 6-foot-3, 282, Kelce fits what Mudd is looking for in an offensive lineman -- smaller, quicker and more agile than the traditional 300-plus-pound monsters. Mudd wants his linemen jumping out and establishing the spots on which they'll block. And as soon as Kelce met his new line coach, he knew it'd be a good fit.
"A lot of his schemes and techniques are suited for guys with my skill set," Kelce said. "It wasn't that I was expecting to be the starter. I just just excited about the opportunity to compete for anything."
He may have been set up to succeed, but Kelce still had to win the spot. And if Watkins can be classified as a disappointment because he wasn't able to take the field for the first game of his rookie season, Kelce deserves credit for having earned the spot. Watching him block gives you a window into Mudd's mind. Especially in the run game, Kelce is quick and agile enough to move with the play, clearing room for the backs behind him with simultaneous grace and physicality.
Offensive line coach Howard Mudd tends to value smaller, more agile linemen over road-grader types.
Those who watched the rookie in the preseason saw a guy who needed work in pass protection, sure. But it's coming along quickly. Remember, rookies have had only about six weeks' worth of NFL practices in which to learn all of this stuff so far.
"The whole mental aspect of the game just really hits you right away when you start practicing and going to meetings at this level," Kelce said. "There's a lot to take in, and you see that right away when you show up. But once you settle in, you find it starts to come quicker."
One of the keys, Kelce said, is the way he's been received by the Eagles' veterans. Players like Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis around him on the line have helped him adjust even as he's been the one having to make the line calls. His young yet solid relationship with quarterback Michael Vick, who sits in meetings with his offensive linemen this year so he's better prepared for his new responsibilities of changing the protection at the line, helps Kelce feel comfortable. And the first name he spits out when asked who his mentor is is that of Jamaal Jackson, whose job he took.
"Jamaal's just been a huge help to me," Kelce said. "Without him I don't know that I would have been able to come close to being ready to play at this level. I'm not saying I'm there yet, because there's a lot I have to work on. But those guys I have around me, they do a good job of making me feel comfortable."
In return, Kelce's job is to help do the same for Vick. So far, it's working out pretty well. How can you tell? Just from the fact that Kelce wasn't on Sunday's inactives list. He may be a rookie, and he may have been Mudd's choice. But the Eagles have made it clear they're not giving anybody any breaks this year. Kelce has earned his spot.