Bill Hass on the ACC: Tennant Anchors Middle of Another Fine Boston College O-Line
Sept. 10, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - It's often said that football centers are made, not born, and Matt Tennant of Boston College can attest to that.
There was a moment of trepidation in his conversion, however.
After playing guard all through high school and for his redshirt and freshman seasons at Boston College, Tennant was asked by the Eagles' staff to switch to center.
One day during summer practices, which are organized by the players, Tennant was approached by quarterback Matt Ryan.
"He came up to me and said, `All right, let's get this over with,'" Tennant recalled. "I was like `oh no, I'm going to snap and break his fingers.'"
Ryan took his position in the shotgun formation some five yards behind Tennant. The snap was clean and a center was created. In fact, Tennant proved to be so good that he won the job in preseason camp and has now started 29 straight games.
Some may think that switching from guard to center is no big deal, but there's more to it than meets the average fan's eye.
"There's a huge difference," Tennant said. "The biggest one is you're snapping the ball so you're not able to get your hands on the defensive lineman quite as quick.
"The other thing is you sort of set the offense. You direct the offensive line as to who they're going to be targeting when they're blocking, so you need to have a better understanding of the offense."
Coach Frank Spaziani, who has spent most of his career coaching the defensive side of the ball, appreciates what Tennant has accomplished.
"You have to be athletic to be a center," Spaziani said. "You've got to get the ball up and then you've got to move, you're playing somebody right on your head most of the time, you make all the calls, get the line calls straightened out, the pass protection. You've got to be smart, athletic - you have to be a very good player."
One part of what Spaziani said brought a chuckle from Tennant.
"I'm an offensive lineman, so I know I'm not that athletic," he said, "but I think of myself as a decently athletic guy."
Tennant said he has worked on his quickness, which helps on plays when he has to pull and, overall, just getting into a blocking position more quickly after he snaps the ball.
Now a fifth-year senior, Tennant has become so acclimated to the position that he rarely thinks about what he's doing.
"If I start to think about it too much, then sometimes (the snaps) go a little bit wide, they go high, they go low," he said. "You really can't think about it; it has to become second nature for you."
Playing center has given Tennant a better understanding of the offense as a whole. He has to know who everyone else is blocking, including the tight end, and call out the adjustments when he sees the defensive alignment.
Some linemen prefer the power of run blocking and some like the precision of pass blocking Tennant doesn't care because he usually has a big nose tackle playing right in front of him, often one some 20 or more pounds heavier.
"It's all kind of the same for me," he said. "I'm going to be snapping the ball and there's going to be somebody in my face either way."
Boston College has developed a tradition of excellent offensive linemen - Tennant said some people refer to it as "O-Line U." The Eagles are now in their fifth season in the ACC, and in the previous four years eight offensive linemen have made either first- or second-team All-ACC.
This year's line, Tennant said, ranks right up there with the best of them in the BC tradition - blue-collar, hard-nosed types who play until the final second ticks off the clock.
He is flanked by left guard Emmett Cleary, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, right guard Thomas Claiborne and right tackle Rich Lapham. Four of the five interior linemen were starters last year, with Cleary, a redshirt freshman, the newcomer.
Familiarity with each other helps with the cohesiveness that every offensive line must develop.
"You work together on the offensive line," Tennant said. "There're very few times one guy is working by himself without having another guy there able to assist you. We have four returning guys from last year and those guys have a good understanding of each other, what our tendencies are.
"We have a new guy this year, Emmett Cleary. He's still learning and we're still learning how he plays. It was evident in the first game -- we weren't all running together, everything wasn't sitting the way we like, and that's something we have fix this week. I think you take the biggest step from the first game to the second game and you'll see a lot more cohesiveness in the offensive line."
The Eagles opened the season with a 54-0 rout of Northeastern, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) opponent. This Saturday they're at home against Kent State, a much tougher test. The Golden Flashes shut out Coastal Carolina 18-0 last weekend.
A native of Cincinnati, Tennant will try to make sure his teammates don't underestimate an opponent from the Mid-American Conference.
"They're very similar to us in the (defensive) schemes they run," he said. "Their coaches really put them in the positions to succeed and we're going to have to be on the top of our game because they're going to be running at us at 100 miles an hour.
"I'm an Ohio guy, so I know the kind of players they have and I know what the MAC teams are capable of. They're hard-working players out there and they're going to go the entire contest. This is a big game for them."
With two inexperienced quarterbacks, Justin Tuggle and David Shinskie, the Eagles relied on a strong running game to beat Northeastern. Tennant knows Kent State will try to pressure both young players.
Tennant said he has been doing extra work with Tuggle and Shinskie on the center-to-quarterback exchange and helping them get a feel for the flow of a game. He pulled them to the side to get them working on a cadence that was more uniform. One was fast and one was slow, which can be disruptive to the other 10 players.
"You want to make their job as easy as possible," he said of the quarterbacks.
That demonstrates the kind of leader Tennant has become and is a reason he was voted one of BC's captains.
Spaziani expects a lot from his line in general and Tennant in particular.
"We don't have enough depth in our offensive line but we believe we have five guys we can win with," the coach said. "Matt stepped up and had a real good preseason, he played well last week and we're looking forward to finding out if he can improve as the (level of) competition increases."
Tennant should be able to do just that - now that he doesn't worry about breaking anyone's fingers with the snap.
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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