BATON ROUGE, La. -- It looks so easy, so natural for P.J. Lonergan.
He squats down and grabs the football with one hand, all while monitoring the defense lining up in front of him. From the middle of the offensive line, he calls out blocking assignments to his mates on either side of him. Then, when the quarterback calls for the ball, the LSU center snaps it -- either handing it to him between his legs, or slinging it back in the air in the shotgun, all while quickly firing off the ball as to not allow a defensive player to compromise his ability to block.
So much to do. Yet, he makes it look so easy.
It hasn't always been that way for Lonergan, who enters his third year starting at center for LSU, making him the most experienced of a veteran starting LSU offensive line. Lonergan moved from offensive guard at New Orleans/Archbishop Rummel High School to center during his redshirt freshman season in 2008 and now enters his senior season a master of his craft.
"If you really want to play center, you really have to embrace the position," said Lonergan, a second-generation Tiger whose father and uncle both played at LSU. "I like the position now. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else."
It must be embraced, he said, because all that goes into it. The calling out of blocking assignments. The consistent snap. The quick transition from snapper to blocker. These are not skills to be taken for granted.
He learned them fairly quickly. After his redshirt season, he started two games as a redshirt freshman, then all 13 games of his sophomore season. He missed two starts as a junior with a high ankle sprain, but his value was apparent in big games. He was credited with a whopping 14.5 knock-down blocks in the season-opening win over Oregon and, after his missed the previous two games because of the ankle injury, he came off the Tigers' bench in the second half to help the Tigers rally to beat Alabama in overtime in Tuscaloosa.
His play was largely overshadowed both at LSU -- left guard Will Blackwell was an All-American -- and in the SEC, where Alabama's William Vlachos and Georgia's Ben Jones were largely considered last season's SEC gold standard. He's on the Rimington Award watch list this season, but he's again getting overlooked in the SEC, where Alabama moving Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones from tackle to center.
Nevertheless, LSU is expecting big things.
"I expect the best football he has played," said LSU offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, "He is the general out there and he gives us the ability to go up-tempo by getting us out of the huddle quicker, going no-huddle or even giving [quarterback Zach Mettenberger] some checks."
All the things that Lonergan makes look so easy now.
"Having him out there with his knowledge is invaluable and all of our guys look to him," Studrawa said.
The transition he made to center didn't necessarily come naturally.
He said the hardest part was learning how to make a good snap AND come off the ball to block, a mixture of moves many take for granted from centers, but is not the easiest of transitions.
"It's hard to snap the ball, then do what you have to do aggressively," he said. "You have to fire that ball back there, but you still want to come off the ball, know the play, you just have a lot of responsibilities."
Lonergan must have been handling his responsibilities well a season ago. LSU led the SEC with 2,836 rushing yards and was second to Alabama in both yards per carry (4.8 per carry) and yards per game (202.6). With all of the Tigers' top four running backs returning to go with the four offensive linemen, many expect LSU to be even a better rushing team this season.
It won't happen if the center doesn't call the right assignments. It won't happen if the middle of the line collapses because the center can't both snap the ball and come off it to make a good block.
"He got better last year and made a lot of improvements," Studrawa said. "At the end, he knows that. I expect him to play the best football and be the best."