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How Rookie Center Luke Fortner Has Already Earned the Jaguars' Trust

The No. 65 overall pick is already on track to earn a starting role in Doug Pederson's offense.

When the Jacksonville Jaguars kicked off this year's training camp, there was one surprising development that not many foresaw after the spring. 

No, it wasn't at quarterback, wide receiver or along the defense. Instead, it was along football's most overlooked and underappreciated unit: the offensive line, where rookie center Luke Fortner was already given the reins.

"You draft these guys for a reason, and the reason is they need to play. We need the depth, we need the talent, we need maybe possibly to fill a hole," Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson said on Thursday as he lamented on his rookie center and some of his fellow defensive counterparts. 

"There’s no better time than right now to let them go through a practice and make mistakes, have successes and be able to coach all that right now than say, Week 1 or 2 of the regular season, when it’s their first time.”

Fortner, an All-SEC selection and team captain in 2021, was drafted by the Jaguars with the No. 65 overall pick in April. But despite being drafted so early, Fortner didn't see many starting reps during the spring, instead working with the second-team offense at center while veteran offensive lineman Tyler Shatley started at center. 

From the first snap of training camp, though, there has been a shift. Fortner has taken every rep at center with Trevor Lawrence and the rest of the starting offense, with Shatley shifting over to left guard. It is a shift for Shatley, who has played guard in the past but made most starts at center last year. But it is a shift the Jaguars are making because they believe in Fortner.

"He played a long time in the SEC and has been exposed to a lot of things. In my opinion, he was fortunate to play under (former Kentucky Offensive Coordinator) Liam Coen his last year at Kentucky and being exposed to a pro style system, if you will." Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor said this week. 

"He hasn’t seen a lot of the packages that you’re going to see in an NFL game, so it’s just a process of getting introduced to all that, what the communication is like. He’s very fortunate to lean over and Brandon Scherff is right there. Tyler Shatley is right there. Guys that can communicate well with him. (Offensive Line Coach) Phil (Rauscher) has been exposed to a lot of things and does a great job of coaching that room up. We’re doing our best to challenge those guys. We put them in walk through situations."

"We have a second-year quarterback and potentially a rookie center, and those are two guys that are in charge of a lot of the communication process. We’re trying to overwhelm them a little bit in walk throughs and see where they’re at and go down and talk it through and make sure we’re all on the same page and do what’s best for us.”

Fortner, a former three-star recruit, appeared in eight games in 2017 after being redshirted in 2016. He appeared in 11 games as a backup again in 2018 before starting 13 games at right guard in 2019. He then started seven games at right guard and three at left guard in 2020 before moving to center and starting 13 games in 2021. 

It was at Kentucky where Fortner proved himself as a future NFL starter to the Jaguars and also to future teammates such as No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, who played against Fortner during a Georgia-Kentucky bout last season.

“He was very patient on the offensive line. That’s one thing that when we scouted him at Georgia, he was very patient," Walker said. 

"If he gets his hands on you, he’s very strong. More than likely, you’re not going to get out of that once he grabs you. He’s a great athlete, and he’s strong.”

But it is Pederson who Fortner has had to prove himself to the most. The head coach has always had strong offensive lines, with an especially strong emphasis placed on the center position. Pederson saw what having an athletic and powerful center can do for an offense with Jason Kelce and the Eagles. Now, he hopes Fortner can provide the same boost, even with rookie lumps likely to arise.

"He was a player that we watched on tape in college. He played in some really big games at Kentucky. Just really loved his athleticism. He’s a smart guy," Pederson said.  "You get into the offseason program and when we draft these guys as high as we did – Luke being in the third round like we did – we knew at some point that we have to at least get him in there with the ones and let him go to work.

"Nothing is set in stone, but we want to give him those valuable reps to work with a veteran in Brandon (Scherff) to his right and Cam (Robinson) to the left and work with these guys. He’s done a nice job and he’s handled it well. We continue to throw a lot of information at him and see what he can handle.”