Center position becoming a snap for Burns

John R. Carter

Before a quarterback throws a pass, a running back hits a hole, a wide receiver dashes down the sideline or a guard picks up a block, the focus in football is on one thing.

The center.

Every play of every game, it’s the center who touches the ball first. It’s the center who snaps the pigskin to the quarterback. It’s the center who anchors the offensive line.

Minnesota’s Derek Burns is proud to do all of those things as the new center on the Gophers football team. The senior understands and enjoys all the responsibilities listed in his job description.

“There is a lot on your hands,” Burns said. “The play can’t start without a good snap, whether it’s shotgun or under center. Playing center adds to the excitement.”

After suiting up at left guard in his first three years at Minnesota, Burns made the switch to center for this season. He won the job in spring practice and has kept it since.

Burns, who never played center at any level prior to this year, said he’s still not 100 percent comfortable with how he’s playing. But so far, he is loving the move.

For Burns, however, there is more to the center position than just excitement. There is also a little pressure.

Burns didn’t replace just any old center for the Gophers this year – he stepped into a position previously occupied by Ben Hamilton.

Over his four years with Minnesota, Hamilton missed just one game. He was a two-time All-American, a Lombardi Award finalist and a fourth-round pick in the NFL draft.

Burns looks at his role as “Ben Hamilton’s replacement” as both an honor and a burden.

“The bad part is that you have to fill in for one of the top-two centers, if not the best center, in the nation,” Burns said. “You have some big shoes to fill.

“The good part about it is that I got to play two years at left guard so I learned a lot playing next to him.”

Minnesota center’s coach Gordon Shaw said Burns’ characteristics as a football player fit perfectly for a center and thus made him the best choice to fill Hamilton’s void.

“We started off the first few practices (in the spring) with about four candidates,” Shaw said. “Derek won the job because he encompassed the knowledge, ability and execution needed to play center. He was the best guy in all three of those areas.

“Usually your most savvy, durable and tough lineman is your center. Derek fits all of those.”

Beside the pressure of replacing Hamilton, Burns faced other obstacles in his move to center – including playing as a one-armed lineman.

At left guard, Burns focused strictly on protecting his quarterback and opening holes for running backs, with both arms ready each play.

But at center, his first priority is getting the ball in the quarterback’s hands – cleanly.

“It is a lot tougher to snap the ball and block than just block, until it becomes second nature for him, which I think it has now,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said.

Burns said the complexion of the game completely changes as the ball passes between his legs.

“Your first second-and-a-half or two seconds of each play are a lot more crucial,” Burns said. “It’s almost as if you’re a step behind everyone else, and you have to make that up.”

The excitement Burns feels when he stands over the ball reached a fever pitch last month at Toledo.

Burns recalled what it was like to take the field for the first time as center.

“Even though I had taken so many snaps in practice, it was different jogging out on the field,” Burns said. “I went down and said, `OK, this snap has to be good, it’s the first one.'”

It has to be every time. His offensive teammates are counting on Burns to get them started.


John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]