Common sense left behind in Vols’ odd crisis at center

Friday, October 28, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 43

In ancient lore, the use of the left hand or to be left-handed was regarded as sinister.

The always-trustworthy Wikipedia – insert eye roll here – states left-handedness “was seen as a sign of the devil and abhorred in many cultures.”

One of those cultures seems to be the University of Tennessee, where left-handed center James Stone was moved from center last week simply because he was having a devil of a time using his right hand to snap the football.

Stone, a former standout at Nashville’s Maplewood High, is a natural left-hander.

The snap is the simplest offensive maneuver in football. Is it really that big of a sin to snap with the opposite hand if that is a center’s naturally strong hand?

Jake Locker, the Titans first-round pick at quarterback last year, doesn't think so:

"I had a left-handed center the last two years (at Washington), and it's really no different. The ball comes out at a little different angle, but it's easy to adjust to, and it was no problem whatsoever."

Former Titans quarterback Chris Simms says things do change when a lefty quarterback like himself is inserted.

“It does make a difference when a lefty (QB)comes in protection-wise. The right tackle kind of smiled at me, knowing a lefty was in and said, ‘I got your back,’” Simms recalls. “When I was in Tampa, Jon Gruden had everything set up for a right-hander, all the protections and the play-action, and he had to reverse everything for me.”

That’s understandable. But a center?

Simms says the exchange only became a problem when the Vols asked Stone to change hands.

“Him being left-handed shouldn’t be that big of an issue,” Simms says. “But it obviously was when they made him change hands because he couldn’t handle the shotgun snap after only four months of doing it.”

Former NFL center Kevin Mawae is a right-hander who, as a Jet, taught himself to snap left-handed for a handful of games in 2003 after breaking his right hand.

“I’m working with the offensive line here at Montgomery Bell Academy, and all three of my centers are left-handed,” Mawae says. “And it’s no big deal.”

Mawae, a seven-time Pro Bowler at center, says the difference between a right-handed snap and a left-handed snap is simply the angle at which the ball comes out to the quarterback. The adjustment is easy.

“The ball does come out at a different spot from a left-hander, but as a center, you want to put the ball in the same spot on every snap in the exchange where the quarterback will know exactly where it is,” Mawae says. “To me, it is the job of the quarterback to get his hand to the right spot where the ball is going to be. I’ve never seen being left-handed being a problem for a center.”

Stone’s left-handedness was apparently no big deal last year when he handled the snapping duties.

But over the spring, coach Derek Dooley and the Tennessee braintrust decided Stone would have to switch to his right hand if he was to continue snapping the football to Tyler Bray, Matt Simms, Chris’ younger brother, and now freshman Justin Worley.

When Stone switched to the right hand, the results were predictable – especially from the shotgun formation. His inconsistency resulted in high and low snaps, enough bad ones that last week, the coaching staff decided they had seen enough, putting him at left guard and moving Alex Bullard in at center.

Many found the whole saga unnecessary.

“It was odd to make him switch because a number of centers do it,” one NFL scout says. “It has to do with the quarterback’s comfort level and the way that offensive line coaches teach their steps after the snap. On a shotgun snap, the ball comes out at a completely different angle.”

Mawae says Tennessee should have simply let Stone continue as a left-handed center if that’s the way he plays best and feels most comfortable.

“In my opinion, it is ridiculous to take a kid who naturally is left-handed, try to teach him to snap right-handed and then get upset with him when he can’t do it,” Mawae says.

How can it be said any better than that?

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.