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Sept. 9, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - It's not that he's particularly shy, but Russell Nenon doesn't want to draw attention to himself when he plays football.
Nenon is the center for Wake Forest, which opened its season last Thursday by beating Presbyterian 53-13. He watched many of the other games that rounded out the first weekend of college football, games that seemed plagued with an epidemic of bad exchanges between the center and quarterback.
Seeing a bad snap brings a definite reaction from Nenon.
"I go `ooooof' because as a lineman you try to stay out of the headlines," he said. "But when you do something like that you're the focus for the next five minutes on TV or it's going to be written up in the newspaper.
"It's just something that sticks with you for awhile. You ask yourself `what if?' What if I didn't do that? We could have scored that drive. It's a scary thing to happen because the spotlight is specifically on you. Being someone who normally doesn't get the spotlight like a quarterback or a receiver, it's a very uncomfortable feeling."
Nenon, a fifth-year senior, vividly remembers the one bad snap he's made.
"My only bad snap I've had in a game was two years ago against NC State," he said. "Two minutes left, we're driving to hopefully win the game. The ball came out of my hand funny and stayed low to the ground. Luckily Riley (Skinner) picked it up but I threw him off of the play.
"It's something you have to practice over and over and over again. There is no play without the quarterback taking the ball. So our coaches hammer on us that it has to be perfect. I've been lucky enough to not have to worry about that, knock on wood. There are some great centers that it has happened to, so it can happen to anybody. Hopefully it's not going to happen to me this season."
Centers have two kinds of snaps - one when the quarterback is directly under center and the other in the shotgun formation, which requires a snap of five yards back without looking. Wake runs most of its plays out of the shotgun, so Nenon has come as close as he can to perfecting that skill.
"It's something that takes lots and lots of work," he said. "Once you get it, it's a nice rhythm. I wouldn't quite call it an art, but you have to make sure you don't take it for granted every single time. You have to make sure you have it in the right position between your legs or there's no telling where it could go."
The procedure works like this: The quarterback gets set, shows the center his hands, then the center looks up and, in Nenon's words, "I let it rip."
Coach Jim Grobe said Nenon is "about as solid as you get" in snapping the ball. The skill, Grobe said, can be a nightmare to learn because a center also has to be concerned with who he's going to block on the play. Sometimes the snap can become secondary, and that's where problems begin.
Nenon missed spring practice because of shoulder surgery and Wake's younger centers had a multitude of problems just getting the ball back to the quarterback. Things smoothed out when he was ready for the start of preseason camp in August.
"Like any other skill, it's not 100 percent," Grobe said. "You're not going to have every snap be perfect. What you hope to do is manage the snaps. If you do have a snap that's a little bit off left or right or high or low, then it's not so far off that the quarterback can't handle it."
Still, even if a center is just a little bit off in practice, coaches will notice.
"Before the game Thursday, I sent a couple of snaps to the left a little bit and coach was like `um, fix it,'" Nenon said, referring to offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke. And Nenon did.
Snapping and blocking are only two components of a center's duties. He's usually the leader of the offensive line, particularly in Nenon's case since he's the only senior on the unit. And there are times when he has to be a little bit of a psychologist.
Guard Joe Looney, who plays to Nenon's left, vouches for his leadership.
"I just think Russell Nenon is a great leader," he said. "He takes guys under his wing and helps them out the best he can. He's a guy we look to, our leader on the offensive line. Him being the only senior, I know it puts a lot of pressure on but he does a great job. He's always helping guys out, he comes to practice with enthusiasm and he plays great."
As for the psychological part, that has come with breaking in a new quarterback. Skinner was the starter for four years, someone who Nenon said would come into the huddle with two minutes left, a smile on his face, and say "let's go win this game."
Against Presbyterian, the Deacon starter was sophomore Ted Stachitas, with three other quarterbacks playing in the second half. Any quarterback has to have trust and confidence in his offensive line, and vice versa, so Nenon began working on that aspect in the spring. Even though he couldn't participate, he was at every practice. He started by telling the linemen that they had to be the calming voice with new quarterbacks. Then he had a conversation with Stachitas.
"I sat down with Ted last spring and said part of being a quarterback is being the leader on offense," Nenon said. "When it comes down to it, the quarterback is the man. You'll get the articles and the interviews after the game. We're here to work for you and you have to lead us down the field."
Nenon likes the way this offensive line, even with three new starters, has come together. He said he feels better about this line than last year's which he felt didn't function as a unit as much as it should have.
"We worked harder, we ran harder, we practiced harder than we ever have," he said of this year's group. "We really enjoy being around each other, we really enjoy working hard and we want to be the best we can be. It's a special group that's excited to play football and wants to play football. There's no `I' on the offensive line; the five guys have to work together for us to win and for us to do well this season the offensive line has to do well."
The saying goes that centers are made and not born and Nenon fits that mold. A tackle in high school in Memphis, he was also the backup center but didn't start at center until his senior season. Once at Wake, he said he was overwhelmed with the speed of the game and the volume and complexity of the playbook, so his snapping was all over the place.
"I drove coach Lobo crazy for about a year," he said with a chuckle.
He was moved to guard for a season, then back to center, where he has settled in. When the Deacons host Duke Saturday, he will be starting his 27th consecutive game, a team high.
Similar to a catcher in baseball, Nenon enjoys the control that comes with being a center.
"The way our offense runs, I control the snap count, I control a lot of things," he said "I can see a lot of movement in the secondary and kind of anticipate what's going to happen on the defensive front. It's nice being able to look at both sides and see the whole defensive scheme.
"It's been great ever since I moved back (to center) in my sophomore year. It seemed like a natural fit. I've gotten really comfortable there."
Nenon does admit to one thing that makes him nervous - changing quarterbacks. During camp, four players competed for the job and sometimes they rotated on every play. Nenon would look back and see one number, run a play, then look back and see another number.
Stachitas won the job, but against Presbyterian Nenon was told going back on the field for the second half and that he needed to take some snaps with true freshman Tanner Price, who played the third quarter.
"I've gotten snaps with him, but it's a new feeling," Nenon said. "You can't take it for granted. The quarterback has to make sure he gets the ball, the center has to make sure he gets it back far enough."
A business major who will graduate in December, Nenon is interested in eventually becoming an equity trader or a wealth management broker.
"It's something that has caught my eye," he said. "Football is a lot of making your own way; you get out what you put in. Being in wealth management, you have to put in the work to get the clients. It's a part of my lifestyle that I've known since I was a little kid, so it seemed like the way to go after football."
He doesn't know what might be in store as far as the NFL is concerned. After this season he plans to train and see what happens in workouts and then the draft.
Until then, though, Russell Nenon wants to keep making those good snaps and, as a result, staying out of the spotlight and headlines.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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