RENTON, Wash. – Max Unger, grizzled vet?
Well, not quite. But on a Seahawks’ offensive line made up mostly of talented but inexperienced players, Unger, who by all normal measures is young and inexperienced himself, practically qualifies as an elder statesman. If not for left guard Robert Gallery, who the Seahawks signed to add experience, the 25-year-old Unger would be the oldest member of the Seahawks’ starting five.
“Yeah, that is weird,” Unger said. “It’s not that big of a deal though. We’re all pretty young, and we’re figuring it out. It’s no excuse. So what if we’re young? It happens.”
Unger, a second-round pick out of Oregon in 2009, is back to playing center after spending most of his rookie year and injury-shortened second season at right guard. With 17 NFL starts under his belt, he ranks second behind Gallery (91) in career starts on Seattle’s line. Left tackle Russell Okung started 10 games as a rookie while battling injuries, and right guard John Moffitt and right tackle James Carpenter are both rookies.
And if the Seahawks line is going to figure things out quickly, as Unger hopes, a lot of that will fall on his shoulders. Sure Gallery is the 31-year-old seasoned pro who knows the blocking scheme best, having played for offensive line coach Tom Cable in Oakland, but on any line the center has a lot to do with how well the entire unit functions.
Considering that Unger played one game last year before suffering a season-ending toe injury, and that in the previous season he started 13 of 16 games at guard, not center, that could be viewed as a cause for concern. Seattle’s coaches, however, see things differently.
“He’s embracing that role beautifully, really sharp,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s not an experienced player, but he’s one that gives us the confidence. He’s going to get it right, he’s going to make his calls. He studies so hard and it means so much to him. He’s taking over at a very meaningful spot right there. We look forward to his growth.”
If anything, Carroll said, they waited too long to move Unger to center. In 2009, under then-head coach Jim Mora, the Seahawks began the year with Unger at right guard and former first-round pick Chris Spencer at center. Towards the end of the season, the decision was made to swap Spencer and Unger, but when Carroll and his staff took over in 2010, they decided to go back to Spencer at center and Unger at guard.
When Cable came in, however, he immediately evaluated his options and saw Unger as the team’s long-term answer at center. As a result the team elected not to re-sign Spencer, and the Seahawks are sticking with Unger as their center for now and into the foreseeable future.
“Well, honestly I think we missed it last year,” Carroll said. “We started him at guard. The guys thought that was the best place for him with the guys that we had, but going back to the draft and looking at the evaluations – everybody thought he was going to be a really good center. So Tom saw it, he had evaluated him in the draft and seen him as a center, was looking for it and kind of putting it together.”
As happy as Unger is to be back on the field, he knows things won’t be perfect for his line, particularly in the early going. An offensive line, more than just about any position group, needs time together to learn to play as a unit. So there have been hiccups along the way – missed assignments, false starts, fumbled snaps – things that won’t be fixed overnight.
“I mean, it’s slow,” Unger said. “It’s frustrating. You want to just get off the ball and just start rocking, but we’re thinking a lot and it’s slowing us down.”
But even at 25, and with almost an entire season missed, the Seahawks expect Unger to be one of the people leading as the line finds its way. It’s a challenge both Unger and his coaches expect him to conquer.
“When you don’t get to play, you never get those reps back that you lost,” Cable said. “So that’s the negative, but he’s a brilliant, brilliant guy and very talented, so his acceleration and learning has been extreme.”