August 14, 2008

Hickman re-acclimating to move back to center

Technically, Jacob Hickman is a new face at center for Nebraska this season. In reality, though, he couldn't be much further from it.

With the graduation of two-year starter Brett Byford last season, Hickman has emerged as the No. 1 center on the Huskers' depth chart through the spring and fall camp. Considering his resume, Hickman is anything but a newcomer.

Hickman actually opened last season as the No. 2 center behind Byford, where he spent the first two games of the year. But after Andy Christenson got hurt midway through the Huskers' third game against Southern California, Hickman moved over to left guard and started there the rest of the season.

Though he established himself as a capable starter at guard last season, Hickman said he feels more at home with the move back to center.

"I kind of expected it when I got recruited," Hickman said. "It was brought up to me that it was possible that that change might happen. It was kind of one of those things where I did play a little bit last camp and the beginning of last season, so I was kind of expecting it. It's a fun change. I like the extra responsibility."

While Hickman is no stranger to playing the position, he said he's still been trying to knock some rust from his skills at center this offseason.

Along with adjusting to the basic center-quarterback snap exchange, Hickman said he's still had some issues with his snaps out of the shotgun formation. He said he's not having any difficulty with the accuracy of his snaps, but more so the speed in which the ball gets to the quarterback.

In other words, he said he's been lofting the ball a bit too slowly.

"Realistically, if you know the plays it's not that big of a difference aside from the snap," Hickman said. "That was awkward at first, but it's to the point now where the only thing I worry about is sometimes Joey and I have some shotgun problems. I've never done that before, and sometimes he's got to tell me to get it back there a little quicker."

Other than that, he's basically spent the majority of his fall camp getting used to simply snapping the ball and getting his hands up to block NU's defensive tackles such as junior Ndamukong Suh. And the word "simply" is used very loosely.

"Anytime you try snapping when there's no one in front of you, it's never the same," he said. "When you've got a big guy like Suh in front of you - you snap the ball and get hit in the face - it changes it up a little bit. You get hit, boom, like that.

"If you're a guard you have a bit of a cushion and you have a chance to read what the defense is doing on a pass play. For me, it was getting used to getting my hands from between my legs to a guy's chest. Sometimes on pass plays you get hit and take a couple steps back. That's been the hardest thing for me physically."

Hickman still has some work to do before he's completely comfortable with the move back to center. Luckily, his coaches aren't worried about him getting there in time.

"His intelligence is probably his biggest attribute," NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. "He knows what the defenses look like, he knows where the safeties are. He sees linebacker alignments and also up front alignments. He's got a good feel for what defenses try to do, and you have to have that to be a guy who's in charge of pass protection responsibilities up front."

Cotton said the starting job at center isn't officially Hickman's quite yet, as redshirt freshman Mike Caputo has apparently given Hickman a run for his money through the first few days of fall camp.

However, Hickman is still the No. 1, and unless something dramatic was to happen between now and Nebraska's home opener on Aug. 30, Cotton made it sound like that will unlikely change.

For Hickman, the new role has come with plenty of hurdles to overcome. But that seems to be exactly how he wants it.

"(The center) really is the leader of the line," Hickman said. "When it comes to playing center, you have to know how to make all the line calls, and that's kind of big because if there's any question you have to make it because the rest of the line can't see both sides.

"That's something I actually kind of like. I like the responsibility because I feel like I have more control of the situation."

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