Key to offensive line, Eagles center Jason Kelce looking to snap back

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Jason Kelce (center) warms up with teammates during training camp on Aug. 3.

Howard Mudd is a huge Jason Kelce fan. Has been since 2011, when Mudd, then the Eagles’ offensive-line coach, made the undersize rookie sixth-round pick his starting center on the very first day of training camp.

Kelce weighed only about 280 pounds, but that didn’t matter to Mudd, who always has valued athleticism over bulk in offensive linemen. And Kelce didn’t let his boss down, playing exceptionally well as a rookie before tearing his ACL in the second game of the 2012 season.

“I’m very prejudiced about Jason Kelce,’’ said Mudd, 75, who is enjoying retirement in Seattle but still keeping a relatively close eye on the NFL, where he played and coached for 45 years. “I love him. I like his spirit. I like his intelligence, and I like his accountability.

“I bet he’s probably said, ‘I played crappy last year and I have to play better.’ I like people like that because you can make something out of deficiencies when you are accountable.’’

Kelce is as accountable as they come. He’s his own worst critic. He knows he was inconsistent last season and also knows he has to play better this season if the Eagles are going to have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

He has had  problems blocking bigger interior defensive linemen, was flagged a team-high six times last year for holding after getting nailed a career-high eight times the season before, and was all over the place with his shotgun snaps to quarterback Carson Wentz.

During the offseason, he had to endure nonstop rumors that the Eagles were looking to trade him and replace him in the middle with 2016 third-round pick Isaac Seumalo.

“There still are a number of things I do very well,’’ Kelce said in his own defense after a recent training camp practice. “That’s obviously why I’m still here. The stuff [that’s hurting me] is technique. And I have to be accountable to do my job.

“I think I got better throughout the season last year after a rough start to the year. We’re still working on that now. Stout [offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland] is really on me this year about using the proper technique and fundamentals. And I think that’s going to pay off big.’’

The biggest question regarding Kelce is whether he is a very good fit for the Eagles’ offensive line anymore. He is one of the most athletic centers in the league, which is why Mudd loved him.

But the Eagles aren’t really about athleticism up front anymore in Doug Pederson’s offense. They are about power.

Right guard Brandon Brooks weighs 350 pounds. Left tackle Jason Peters appears to be up to about 340-345. Right tackle Lane Johnson is 320. And the 6-4 Seumalo, who probably will open the season as the  starting left guard, while only 305 pounds, might be the team’s most powerful offensive lineman.

“There are some things in his game, and we’ve talked about this, that he needs to improve on,’’ Stoutland said of Kelce.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Eagles center Jason Kelce with offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland  during an October 2016 practice.

At Stoutland’s request, Kelce bulked up during the offseason, adding  10 to 15 pounds to help him cope with the bigger tackles who have been giving him trouble.

“I think this is the heaviest he’s been since I’ve been here,’’ said Stoutland, who has been with the Eagles since 2013. “I think there’s technique things we can do to help him. And it’s up to him to buy in and utilize those.’’

Kelce said the extra weight should help him, but he also pointed out that a number of successful centers in the league are in the same sub-300-pound neighborhood as he is.

“The bottom line is there are a number of centers in this league that play at 290, 295 pounds,’’ Kelce said. “And there have been a lot of very successful centers that weight.’’

[Carson Wentz stretching for any edge with warm-up routine]

Mudd doesn’t believe Kelce’s lack of heft is his problem. It didn’t hinder him at all as a rookie, when he played in Mudd’s scheme. He said the 29-year-old center just needs to get better leverage on the bigger tackles, the way he did earlier in his career.

“He’s an athletic player that can get leverage on a guy,’’ Mudd said. “Leveraging a man is simply coiling all of your levers at contact and getting your shoulder pads underneath his shoulder pads.

“The minute he stops and tries to muscle somebody is when he loses. Because when you try to muscle someone, your center of gravity starts to rise. Your shoulder pads aren’t under his. At best, you’re even with him. And the other guy is bigger and stronger than him, so he’s going to lose.

“You’ve got to get your pads under him every single time and stop worrying about knocking him somewhere and worry about finishing him. Finish, finish, finish, finish. Finishing is moving your feet continuously from the time the ball is snapped until the whistle blows. That’s what finishing is. And Jason has great assets to do that.’’

Kelce said Stoutland has had him focusing on using his hands better, and, as Mudd suggested, getting better leverage.

“I’ve been working on getting lower and utilizing the strength and leverage that I have,’’ he said. “We’re constantly trying to improve on that.

“For years, I was a good basic player. And I still do a lot of things very well. But there are things I’m screwing up on.

“Now, I’m having to adjust things that I probably was doing wrong three years ago, but was getting away with. Now, I’m not getting away with them and I need to correct the mistakes.’’

Kelce needs to cut down on the holding penalties, which also can be attributed to poor technique. He had just 10 in his first 46 NFL starts, but has had 14 in his last 32.

“He did a lot of grabbing last year,’’ NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “He got called for a bunch of blatant holds.’’

And then there were the inordinate number of poor snaps to Wentz, something else Kelce didn’t do earlier in his career.

He said he wore a glove on his right hand, his snapping hand, last year for the first time in his career and thinks that contributed to the inconsistent snaps. He isn’t wearing it anymore.

“I think a lot of it came down to concentration,’’ Kelce said. “I really don’t remember struggling with snaps when I was younger. I’ve taken the glove off, so we’ll see if that makes any difference.

“But I think a lot of it just comes down to the technique portion of it and making sure you solidify the snap first. Sometimes, you take that for granted because I do it every single day and lose track of that.’’