Wallowa High senior Jeremy McCulloch is a center.
In football, centers are the oft-overlooked fulcrum about which an offense turns. Without a center who is quick, canny and accurate, no play is going to function well, and no pass will be anything but hurried and, usually, off-target. Centers also have the unenviable job of stopping, or at least delaying, the biggest meat-eaters on the defensive line, who want nothing more than to trample the snapper on their way to the quarterback.
Why is a good center valuable? "Everything starts with the center," Oveson said. He thought for a moment and then laughed. "And the thing about Jeremy, he's real durable." And difficult to replace, too. While Oveson hastened to point out that it wouldn't be fun to try and replace any of his offensive linemen, he'd be especially hard pressed to replace McCulloch. "With your center it's pretty tough to take someone off the bench and start shotgun snapping and have the confidence that you do with Jeremy."
Durability is vital for a good center. McCulloch got a taste of something most high school centers never have to deal with - Michael Marks, a highly recruited NCAA pick, trying to go through him to get to the quarterback.
"He's a big boy," McCulloch grinned. "That was by far the hardest blocking assignment I've ever had." McCulloch spent that night trying to occupy Marks, who outweighed him by 130 pounds, and to keep him out of the pocket and slow his attacks. And he did it. McCulloch matter-of-factly recalls his effectiveness. "I don't know if he actually registered a sack or not," he mused. One could have counted the times Marks made it quickly into the backfield in the Joseph-Wallowa game on both hands, and that's saying a lot with a player as big, strong and canny as Marks is.
"Most of the bigger guys are so slow," McCulloch said when asked about facing the big boys of the defense. "I can beat them off the line. But Marks is really quick for his size. He's a really good football player ... his speed is what makes him so lethal." Even compared to a fired-up 6' 4" 280-pound Thomas VanNice playing for a nothing-to-lose Cove squad, Marks was "by far a step above that."
A good snap, especially in the shotgun, is a tricky proposition. A lot of high school centers never manage it, which is why you don't see the shotgun as much outside college or pro ball. Of course, if you've been to Wallowa's games this year, you've seen it a lot. What you've seen, perhaps without realizing it, is one of the many reasons the Cougars are headed into the state playoffs with an 8-0 record.
"If I could have any one player off that team, it'd be their center," Joseph coach Rusty Eschler mused. "He's the heart of that offense."
McCulloch doesn't just snap the ball, either, though what he does there is vital, he's also usually throwing fast blocks and reading the defense. On a 20-yard pass play you'll likely as not see him throwing one of the blocks for the receiver 25 yards down field.
"He doesn't quit from the snap to the whistle. And the younger kids are watching that and learning from it," said Wallowa head coach Greg Oveson.
"Jeremy loves to play football. He's not the best athlete on our team but he does as much as anybody out here. He works hard at it," said Oveson. "He knows the line never gets much credit with the kind of offense we have just now. Most of the time there's three guys getting most of the credit. I know that the coaches, and the team, knows what our line's doing for us. I can tell you that (quarterback) Patrick Green appreciates him."
Wallowa started the year not knowing who was going to be center and McCulloch was tried in the spot along with several other players. Very quickly Oveson knew they had the right man in the right spot. Over the course of the season McCulloch has had a total of two bad snaps. Two.
The importance of continuity between a quarterback and a center is, in many ways, like the relationship of a pitcher and catcher in baseball. Both men have to have trust and confidence, and know each others needs on a pitch-by-pitch (or snap-by-snap) basis. It probably doesn't hurt that McCulloch and Green played together in junior high ball. McCulloch was Green's center then as well.
McCulloch is humble about his performance every game night on the field.
"I just try to get Patrick the ball and let him make things happen. You've got to be willing to protect the quarterback and to do whatever it takes," he said. "If you give him time a lot of good things happen for us." And his speed and blocking ability? McCulloch laughs. "I enjoy blocking down field, it's fun."
McCulloch is quick to praise his teammates. He points to Green's arm, to the hands of receivers Ryan Harshfield and Kaleb Oveson, to Dustin Byers, Geoff Long, Victor Bednar, K.C. McKenzie, and all the rest. "I don't know where we'd be without them ... all our skill players are just awesome," he said.
The feeling is mutual. Green was swift to point out why he liked having McCulloch as center.
"He's smart, he knows the game and he concentrates. He goes way more than 110 percent. The thing I like about him the most is that he can block, but he can pick up a blitz, too. He's saved me lots of times," Green said.
Being the center doesn't make McCulloch any different from the other players, he insists. "I just snap the ball, that's the only difference."
Well, maybe. But without that snap, nothing else happens.