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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Most Integral Player, No. 3: Ryan Pugh

Only a few more entries remain in our top-10 countdown. As a reminder, I'll skip tomorrow and resume the countdown Monday (although I will have a lengthy B-sides version of my Jay Jacobs interview on the blog Sunday).

Now for No. 3 on our list, which I think might draw some disagreements from readers: center Ryan Pugh.

  • Skill level: 4. Along with offensive guard, there's probably no more difficult position to assess than center. It's not somebody you generally notice on the field unless something goes terribly awry, like a botched exchange with the quarterback. But Pugh has been a constant in the middle of Auburn's line for quite some time. With one season to play, he has 31 starts, a number most football players don't approach in a career and not far behind tackle Lee Ziemba, who, barring injury, will break the school record for games started. So it's clear Pugh has a high level of skill if he's been on the field all this time at a position that requires a high football IQ and an ornery streak — two attributes Pugh seems to have in abundance.
  • Production history: 4. Another hard category to rank, simply because I would gather most of us would have a tough time differentiating between a cockroach and rodeo block. A good indicator of production, however, is a lineman's grade for each game. Essentially, it's the percentage of times that player successfully executed what he was supposed to throughout a game. Prior to last year, when Auburn made those figures available, Pugh was consistently one of the highest-graded linemen. Last year, he led the offensive linemen with 70 knockdown blocks, a stat offensive line coach Jeff Grimes prizes.
  • Position importance: 4. I'll likely hear some disagreements about this figure, but I think center is one of the more important spots on the offense. Although the quarterback is in charge of play-calling, the center usually handles the blocking assignments up front, an especially important task in Gus Malzahn's up-tempo system, where at-the-line decisions need to be made in an instant. It's a position you take for granted until it's filled by an inexperienced player. That's when you notice more miscommunication up front, which, as any football fan can tell you, is a recipe for disaster on any given play. My last point is this: only two players touch the ball on every play, the center and quarterback (and even that's not true of the quarterback if you're in the Wildcat formation). At center, you'd better have someone trustworthy.
  • Backup competence: 5. Pugh is another player Auburn hopes can avoid the injury bug. His backup is senior Bart Eddins, an injury-prone guard by trade who has been a career backup and never played center in a game. Beyond that, there's Blake Burgess, a walk-on, and incoming freshman Tunde Fariyike, an unheralded last-second recruit who has some upside but has not played the game for very long.
  • Leadership: 4. This ties in with the importance of the position. Pugh can't help but be in a leadership role, given his central position to each play. But beyond that, he's a guy who's been in the program for some time and, as he displayed near the end of Tommy Tuberville's time, wasn't afraid to voice his opinion if questionable decisions were being made that didn't make much sense to him.
  • Total: 21. This might seem like a high figure for a center, but I think Pugh is worth it. He's an experienced player at a position of importance with no proven backup. That's the very definition of an integral player to me. And while there have been accusations in the past that some of Pugh's blocking tactics, how should we put this, stretch the definition of legality, you have to remember the nature of the position. There's usually some dirty business going on in there. It ain't pretty in the trenches. And while you can't condone someone executing an illegal chop block or something similar, it's probably not the worst thing for your opponent to think the center is capable of that. Pugh has the temperament to play the position and play it well. After several years of holding down the spot, I'm not sure he receives the recognition he should.


Simmons B. Buntin said...

Nothing to argue about on this from me, Andy, though I am worried about the lack of backup experience for such an important position.

SteveFC said...

Pugh is a very good pick, although he is probably the second most important lineman. I see a Ziemba in your future.

Tar Heel Tiger said...

excellent once again, AB.

next thing you know, you'll have me believing I like onions.

stymo said...

Great list. With only two spots left let me be the first to hope/suggest that one of them be allotted to Fairley. We REALLY need him to be a monster in the middle of the D this year.

ExKnightMike said...

I can't quarrel at all with this one. Pugh has been somewhat under-appreciated, IMHO. I will hate to see his eligibility used up after this season.

PS: I really don't understand what makes this "Blog" stuff tick. For several days the only way i could comment was as "Anonymous". Today, for no apparent reason I'm beck to being me. What-EVAH!