A college football player never is certain what direction his career will go. Day to day. Week to week. Season to season. For instance, Randall Jones arrived at Maryland two years ago hoping for a long and productive stay at safety. Instead, he was switched to quarterback -- and played well enough to start four games his freshman season. Then, one game into this season, he was moved back to safety -- and played well against North Carolina last week when an injury forced him into the starting lineup.
Charles Hill has had an even wilder ride this season. A sophomore from Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Hill also quickly moved up the depth chart as a freshman last season and started three games at defensive tackle. Less than three weeks into this season, he also was asked to be a second stringer on the offensive line. But not at any position -- the most demanding one, center.
"We can't function without the center's calls just before each snap," said one of the offensive line coaches, Elliott Uzelac. "He's got to give us the [defensive line alignments] and he's got to give us the direction [the offensive line blocks]. Going into the North Carolina game, he had to be able to recognize seven fronts, with movement. He had to do all that, and learn defense too."
Hill said he was "kinda surprised" at the additional work, although his genuine feeling must have been closer to befuddlement. After all, not only had Hill never been exposed to the intricacies of center, he also never had snapped a ball in his football life. He smiled and added: "I'm left-handed -- and they wanted me to snap right-handed."
Practice after practice, Hill worked almost exclusively with the second-string offense, behind redshirt sophomore Melvin Fowler, another former defensive player who has started the past 18 games at center. Occasionally, Hill joined the defensive line for work in situations he might face in games. Short-yardage near the goal line, mostly, where his 282 pounds would be very useful against up-the-middle runs. Away from practice, he got one-on-one tutorials from defensive line coach Levern Belin.
So much is different about the two positions. Defensive linemen mostly attack. Offensive linemen frequently react. A defensive lineman takes his stance with one foot behind the other, for maximum explosion. A center keeps his feet parallel, to avoid giving away the play's direction.
Maryland followers with a sense of history waited for Hill to play both offense and defense in a game. Two-way players are becoming more in favor, even in the NFL. Almost always, they involve a cornerback lining up at wide receiver now and then. They get hit, and hard, but not very often. The last of the sainted two-way linemen, who got smacked around play after play after play, was Chuck Bednarik.
Hill had never heard of Bednarik, whose last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, 1962, was 18 years before he was born.
"It's real rare," said Uzelac, "because [what] they have to go through is so hard. Mentally as well as physically. You do everything you can do to avoid that."
In the three games after starting that daunting double shift, Hill played only defense. And not very often. But an injury to Erwyn Lyght against North Carolina forced some reshuffling on the defensive line -- and Hill played 30 snaps. Maryland then opened such a large lead that the coaches also allowed Hill to play center on nearly a dozen plays.
Hill may have become a footnote in recent football history, but the experiment has ended. As hard as he tried, Hill did not play well enough at center to continue. During workouts for today's game against Duke at Byrd Stadium, Hill was replanted on defense.
"We weren't being fair to the kid," Uzelac said.
As Fowler's backups, Uzelac is trying freshman Brandon Miller, from Good Counsel High School, and starting left guard Todd Wike, who also has ridden the positional merry-go-round at Maryland. A redshirt freshman, Wike arrived at Maryland as a tight end, was switched to center and has started the past six games at left guard after missing the season opener with a broken bone in his right hand.
"We're paper thin," Uzelac said.
All along, Hill has said he prefers defense.
"I'll do whatever," he added.