Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ignition athlete Jason Kelce won't let success go to his head

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd has said Jason Kelce is already one of the best centers in the NFL. ESPN listed him as the No. 3 “breakout candidate” in the entire NFL for 2012. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said Kelce deserved to make last year’s Pro Bowl. 

Jason Kelce was one of just six Eagles to start all 16 games in 2011. (AP)
Everywhere you look, some expert or another is raving about Kelce. One of the best young centers in the league. A sure-fire Pro Bowl pick in 2012. The heir apparent to Jeff Saturday.

Kelce hears it.

And ignores it.

Recognition is nice, but Kelce still sees himself as a walk-on at Cincinnati, a sixth-round draft pick with the Eagles, a young kid who’s had to fight for everything he’s gotten as a football player.

All the praise that’s been lavished on him? He’s not buying into any of it. 

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get that big head about myself where, like, people are going to keep praising me and then I back off and think I’ve arrived all of a sudden,” Kelce said. “I think with just the college career I had and how I made it on the team last year, my personality is that I already have a work ethic established and that’s not going to change. I’m not going to ever let it change.

“That’s not me. Because I think at the end of the day, I want to not just myself improve every single day, I want the unit and the offense to improve every single day. I want to get better every day so we can compete for a Super Bowl. That’s the only goal for this season.”

Kelce, who began training camp last year as a long-shot Day 3 draft pick, wound up beating out Jamaal Jackson for the starting center job and was one of just six Eagles to start all 16 games in 2011, along with Jason Babin, Jamar Chaney, Todd Herremans and Cullen Jenkins.

Kelce became the third center in NFL history drafted in the sixth round or later (or undrafted) to start 16 games as a rookie, joining Kent Hull of the Bills in 1986 and Frank Cornish of the Chargers in 1990. 

Kelce was one of only 16 rookies to start all 16 games last year. Only 15 of the 190 players taken before him started 16 games. 

After a wobbly start, Kelce wound up as one of the biggest surprises in the NFL, going from unknown late-round draft pick to one of the more consistent centers in the league. With his intelligence, athleticism, footwork and leverage, he anchored an offensive line that began the season as a huge question mark and finished it as a strength of the team.

Along with the terrific performance came high praise. And that’s how the notorious sophomore slump always starts. A guy has a great rookie year, buys into all the nice things people say about him and forgets to keep doing everything that got him there.

Not Kelce.

“Sophomore slump, yeah, you see it,” Kelce said. “That’s definitely something that happens, and all I can tell you is that I’m trying to do my best to avoid that.

“I did well last year, but I don’t think I necessarily had as good a season as some people said. I definitely could have done a lot better. My goal is to do my job the best I can and unless I improve, I’m not doing it the best I can.”

It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to do it.

But those around Kelce are confident he won’t let all the nice things people are saying and writing about him affect his preparation and his mindset.

“He’s not wired that way,” Reid said. “He’s a different breed that way. He enjoys it. He’s a unique kid.”

Left guard Evan Mathis, who also enjoyed a breakout 2011 season, is one of Kelce’s closest friends, in addition to playing next to him on the offensive line. No doubt in his mind we won’t see any change in Kelce.

“Jason will never start thinking he’s arrived,” Mathis said. “That’s not him. He always focuses on what he needs to get better at, and I think as long as he plays, that will be his focus. ‘What can I get better at? How can I become a better football player?’”

So the Jason Kelce we’ve seen so far at Lehigh isn’t out of shape, isn’t resting on his laurels, isn’t looking for any shortcuts.

He’s the same guy as last year, just smarter, fitter and hungrier. And with a huge beard.

“A lot of guys will take a step or two back when they first get back to camp from where they left off at the end of the previous year, but he came back and it looked like he got better than he was last year,” Reid said. “He’s in phenomenal shape, and he’s all-in every play, every day, and you love that from that position.

“He’s not wired that way. He’s a different breed that way. He enjoys it. He enjoys everything about it. He’s a unique kid.”

Kelce said his route to a starting job in the NFL – no scholarship offers out of high school, the 191st player taken in last year’s draft – shaped the person he is now to the point where nobody has to worry about him changing.

“I think those situations in my life pushed me to be where I am today.” he said. “I had to work hard. If I didn’t work hard, I wasn’t going to make the team. 

“I feel bad for the guys sometimes who have every single physical attribute but have never been pushed before because they’ve been handed everything. I’d much rather go up against guys like that than guys who’ve had to come in here every single day and work hard just to freaking stay on the team, because those are usually the guys who want it more.

“Honestly? It would have been nice to be a first-round draft pick and have a bunch of money. But I’m grateful that I even got a chance to do this.

“The things that have happened in my life and things I’ve had to overcome and stuff like that have helped formed me into the person I am today, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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