Eagles may have found the heir apparent to Jason Kelce's job at center
Sooner or later, the Eagles are going to need to groom somebody to take over at center for Jason Kelce, who will turn 32 in November.
Perhaps sooner has arrived. Perhaps the job will fall into the lap of a player with the nickname, “Big Island.”
That kind of name happens when you grow to be 6-4, 340 pounds in the Hawaiian Islands the way Eagles undrafted free agent offensive lineman Nate Herbig did.
VIDEO: Eagles DBs drilling at a recent practice
Herbig attended St. Louis High in Honolulu, having moved from Kauai to Oahu in order to play football on the advice of Brian Derby, who runs offensive line football camps in Honolulu and told Herbig that, in order to be seen by colleges, he needed to move and play high school football in Oahu.
St. Louis High is not a school known for producing offensive linemen, but they have the quarterback grooming thing figured out, having sent Marcus Mariota into the NFL with the Titans and last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up and probable first-round pick next spring, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, to the University of Alabama.
That Herbig was born in Hawaii to begin with his because his father, Bruce, had moved from Oregon back in 1992 to help residents of after Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai on Sept. 11 that year, causing $3.1 billion in damage and six deaths.
It was while there when Bruce met Robyn, who was Hawaiian. They got married, stayed in Hawaii, and ultimately had two kids, Nate and Nate’s younger brother Nick, who is a 6-3, 225-pound outside linebacker at St. Louis this fall and has already committed to play at the University of Wisconsin and will enroll early there.
How Nate and Nick sprouted to be so tall is a mystery, though, since Bruce is 5-10 and Robyn is 5-4.
Surely, Nate Herbig’s background is compelling, but what really matters is, can he win a job when the Eagles whittle their roster to 53 players by Saturday afternoon?
Forty-eight hours after Thursday’s preseason finale against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium end, the Eagles have to shed 37 players to get their roster to 53 players. If you think in terms of Vegas odds, Herbig was probably a 250-1 shot to make the roster after signing this past spring as undrafted guard out of Stanford. His odds have come down, but he is probably still a 50-1 shot.
Herbig, who left Stanford with one year of eligibility left, has been taking backup center reps for the past week or so despite never having played the position in his life.
A two-time PAC-12 player, earning first-team as a sophomore in 2017 and second-team in 2018, with injuries hampering his play, Herbig was the first Stanford freshman to start on the offensive line since 2012 and just the second since 2000.
Now, he will likely be the starting center on Thursday as the regulars take the night off.
“Coaches told me Kelce wasn’t practicing one day, do you want to play center?” said Herbig, who just turned 21 in July. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m up for the challenge.’ I guess I’m doing an OK job. They haven’t moved me back to guard, yet.”
A case can be made that he will still be on the roster this weekend.
Stefen Wisniewski has apparently fallen out of favor as the potential backup center. His shotgun snaps have become too erratic to be trusted. Maybe he continues for one more year, but Wisniewski also 30. He’s not the future, and the Eagles have had him playing exclusively at guard while Herbig takes center reps.
Left guard Isaac Seumalo may be the future center-in-waiting, but he has adjusted well at guard. Besides, if Kelce were to go down in-season with an injury, the Eagles don’t particularly like to move a starter on the line to another position because then they are affecting two positions rather than just plugging somebody off the bench into the vacant spot.
Those two things give Herbig a fighting shot at a roster spot.
The practice squad, however, might be a better alternative. That would afford Herbig the perfect opportunity to better learn how to play a position that requires he help his quarterback with protection calls, not to mention learning how to snap without fear of a ball sailing high, wide or low.
“I think there are hard things about snapping underneath (a quarterback) and there are hard things about shotgun snaps, but I would say just snapping the ball in general isn’t the easiest thing when you have a 350-pound nose guard breathing down your neck,” said Herbig. “If you don’t get the ball back, it doesn’t matter how good you can block, you’re fired.”
If the Eagles like him enough, he will be around in some form while learning how to play center from two of the game’s best teachers in Kelce, and line coach Jeff Stoutland.
“Being behind Kelce, I think he’s one of the best to do it in a long, long time,” said Herbig. “Just learning from him and hearing him talk in meetings and what he thinks going through his calls and why he does that, is just unbelievable experience, so I just try to soak in as much about it as I can, and try to learn from him.
“I’ve always been told the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. I got one more opportunity to go out there and do my best.”