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Unger takes center stage
During a break in the individual drills early in practice on Sunday, Max Unger used his time not to get a drink of water but to help rookie guard J.R. Sweezy with his footwork in a certain blocking scheme. Later, during a running drill, Unger sealed defensive tackle Clinton McDonald to open a lane for running back Marshawn Lynch and then spun off McDonald to make a second block on a second defender.
All in a day’s work for the Seahawks’ starting center, and just the latest – if not most obvious – indications of why the team signed Unger to a new contract on the eve of Bing training camp opening.
The Seahawks have been all about identifying players with unique skills since coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over in January 2010, and the next step is then securing those players for future years.
Unger could be the poster player for this process. One of the first things Tom Cable did last year after Carroll hired the former head coach of the Oakland Raiders to be the assistant head coach/offensive line coach on his staff was move Unger to center. Fulltime, and from Day One.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, that’s what the situation with Max is all about,” Cable said. “When you start to build a team like they did two years ago, they made the decision to kind of retool the whole thing. So you’re putting pieces together until you get it right.”
Unger just looks right at center, and it feels as good as it looks – if not better.
“It’s awesome,” said Unger, who was a tackle at Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Honaunau and also in his first three seasons at the University of Oregon before moving to center for his final two seasons. “I’ve played this position more than any other. So I’m just very comfortable with the situation.”
A second-round draft choice in 2009, Unger played primarily at right guard as a rookie and then got a season-ending toe injury in the 2010 opener, also while playing right guard. So last season was his first at the position the Seahawks drafted him to play, and the confidence Unger gained is paying dividends on the practice field this summer.
“Any time you have a veteran who has put himself in a place where he’s accomplished some things – he’s proved he has what it takes to play in this league and shown he can play in this league – those guys are so valuable to your young guys,” Cable said.
Maybe that’s why Cable couldn’t hold back a smile as he watched Unger coaching up Sweezy, a defensive tackle at North Carolina State who was drafted in the seventh round and moved to offensive guard.
“We all stress – and that really comes from coach (Carroll) – getting your older guys teaching your younger guys on the side as much as possible,” Cable said. “Because that makes a difference. Those little nuggets they get kind of speed up their development, and Max is doing that.”
And his teammates are noticing that Unger is taking more of a leadership role, beyond the natural follow-me-boys approach that comes from playing the position in the middle of the line and making the pre-snap line calls.
“I think Max was a leader last year, so it’s not like a big jump,” second-year right guard John Moffitt said. “But he’s just transitioned into that role even more.”
It’s nothing Unger is pushing, and he’s definitely not forcing it on his linemates. It’s a natural progression of something he comes by naturally.
“He’s just a good guy to go to when you have a question,” Moffitt said. “I’ll go to him and ask him things and even the receivers will ask him stuff. So I think people know that Max does his job and knows what he’s doing.”
Asked about that natural leadership, Unger smiled and shrugged before offering, “It is part of the position, because you have to be so vocal. It’s harder to do it if you’re not vocal, so it just comes along with it.”
Still, things have changed quite a bit for Unger his is relatively short stay with the Seahawks. When he arrived, Chris Spencer was the starting center, Rob Sims was at left guard and the club was in the process of burning through four players in trying to find a replacement for nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones.
Now, Unger is in the middle and finds himself flanked by guard Paul McQuistan and tackle Russell Okung on the left side and Moffitt and tackle Breno Giacomini on the right side. Giacomini and McQuistan were backups last year, until season-ending injuries to Moffitt, Okung and James Carpenter pushed them into the starting unit.
Unger hesitates at even referring to them as backups.
“We have the luxury of having very, very capable swing players,” is the way he chooses to put it. “I’m not even really going to call them backups, because they started so many games.
“I feel like we are all capable of being a very, very special offensive line.”
But it’s this continuing shuffling around him that makes securing Unger’s services in the middle that much more important for the present and future of the franchise. And no one was more surprised about getting a new deal than Unger.
“It’s nothing I was seeking, or even talking about,” he said. “My agent just called and said they were talking. They made a pretty strong offer and we got a deal down that both sides were happy with. It happened so fast and now I can just play football.
“This is what all professional football players try and aim for – stability within a program that’s in a city you want to be in. So I couldn’t be happier.”