BLOOMINGTON -- Will Matte has the power. Let's make that clear. Still, power has limits. That's understood. Indiana's senior center knows when he has to dictate blocking protections, and when to defer.
In other words, he ain't arguing with quarterback Tre Roberson.
“I call out protections, where we're going and who might be blitzing,” Matte says, “but at the end of the day, Tre has ultimate say.”
After five years, two head coaches and multiple offensive line coaches, Matte has a deep understanding of the process. He's a veteran charged with providing direction for a youthful line as long as it stays in synch with the direction of the equally young quarterback.
Football huddles have two power centers -- the quarterback who runs the show and the center who directs the offensive line. The quarterback calls the play. As players approach the line of scrimmage, the center scans the defense looking to see if the called blocking protection fits the scenario. If it does, he keeps the blocking the same. If it doesn't, he'll make a change. The quarterback, who also sees the defense, can agree or make his own change.
For Matte and Roberson, a sophomore, there are no disputes.
“We work pretty well together,” Matte says.
Matte is a not a conflict guy. Nor does he overwhelm with size (6-2, 289 pounds) and all-world athleticism. But he's smart (academic all-Big Ten), tough (33 career starts) and resilient. With an offensive of basically freshman and sophomores, his biggest role is to lead.
“Being an older guy in the huddle, I definitely take on a bigger leadership role,” he says. “I make sure everyone is on the same page and executing.”
So far so good, offensive line coach Greg Frey says.
“Will does a good job. He's a great person. He has a good heart. He cares a lot. He does all the things you like to see in your seniors. He's pressing as hard as he can. I like that.”
A center's responsibility involves far more than just his own blocking, especially given the uptempo pace of coach Kevin Wilson's no-huddle offense. And as defenses have become more complicated and imaginative, the center's window of time for recognition shrinks.
“The center is where everything starts,” Frey says. “I promise you, you get to touch the ball every play. Will does. You can't say that to running back, receiver, or tight end or guard or tackle or sometimes even a quarterback. He'll handle the ball.
“A center has to have that leadership and an ability to lead in whatever manner. Sometimes it's telling a guy to 'Come on. Let's go.' Will is starting to understand that. He's starting to embrace his role. He understands what's expected. It takes a little bit of a special make up and mentality. You expect that out of older guys. Will has embraced that.”
The key moment is when the offense approaches the line of scrimmage.
“Younger guys are thinking, what should I do,” Frey says. “Will should know. He should know where a left tackle is supposed to be. He should know were the left guard and the right guard are supposed to be. He should be able to know, hey, this guy isn't here, and we need to get him there. It does change a little bit as you move away from the huddle. He becomes more important in terms of keeping the temperament and the pace we want.
“It has changed a little bit over the years. There's a little more active leadership than, 'Hey, you block down.' It's more, while you're snapping the ball, make sure everybody's eyes are right. You've got to set the tone. You've got a few seconds.
“Here is the call. Now you've got to have recognition. Coach, they showed us a blitz we haven't worked on. What do we do? Where are we supposed to be? It's split-second problem solving. When you get that down, it shows on the field. It shows in production. Guys doing what they have to do.”
Last year's youth -- three true freshmen (including Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert) started on the offensive line -- produced plenty of struggles, and invaluable experience. The emphasis on improved fitness resulted in linemen who were too lean for their positions -- Ball State and North Texas were among the opponents taking advantage. Another year in strength coach Mark Hill's program, Matte says, has made a big difference.
“Last year the O line was pretty light,” Matte said. “We were lacking the extra bulk we needed. Now we have a lot of guys whose numbers in the weight room have gone up tremendously. We've all added at least five to 10 pounds. We've made strides. We're in a much better spot than we were last year.”