Putton's versatility makes him leading man for Arizona football
With former Arizona center Colin Baxter out with a torn meniscus, backup lineman Kyle Quinn was forced into the starting role for the 2010 Alamo Bowl. Then-freshman guard Chris Putton was called upon as the second-string center.
Putton had never shotgun snapped before in his career, and the coaching staff then led by Mike Stoops eased the bright-eyed lineman through the intricacies of the difficult trade.
“I started snapping the first day, and a few of them, you know, hit the ground,” Putton said. “Our coach at the time was very nice about it.”
The staff gave pointers and words of encouragement to the redshirt freshman. Day two was a different story.
“It felt like a completely other person,” Putton said. “‘You better get that [explicit] snap there.’”
Now a seasoned veteran, Putton is once again being called upon to play the center, as Quinn is graduating in the spring. The senior has 18 career starts under his belt and practiced at all five positions on the line last season.
But he can still remember what it felt like the first time he tried shotgun snapping the ball.
“I got a little intimidated by it, but every year after that, I’ve just kept trying to snap,” Putton said. “I think it’s finally starting to come along.
“Obviously it’s never going to be perfect. I have a lot of stuff to work on, but just trying to get through the first few years here was intense. I think it helps me now when I think about it.”
Arizona brings back three of its five starting offensive lineman from last season: Putton, Fabbians Ebbele and Mickey Baucus. The Wildcats also have the seasoned Cayman Bundage and several other players returning from injury to solidify the line.
What they don’t have is a designated center. Putton is starting to earn that distinction.
“Every day he gets a better understanding of the position,” new offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. “It’s very foreign to him, [but] he’s been improving every day.”
Putton has a head start over several other contenders because of his experience and versatility, Michalczik added. The staff isn’t ready to hand over the keys just yet, since Putton proved last season to have value at several positions, but so far, it looks like he’s earned the job.
“[Putton] has improved immensely,” head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s got more comfortable with it. He’s a veteran guy, a tough guy; he eased a little bit of our concern coming into this spring.”
Picking up a new craft isn’t always easy. Putton said he still runs into mental blocks that lower his accuracy on snaps. But once he finally enters the “zone,” snapping becomes almost second nature.
“I can tell once I start getting in a groove, they’re all in the target zone,” Putton said. “Once I get in that groove, I’m good. I just got to get into it first.”
For an offense like Arizona’s, which relies heavily on the read-option and shotgun formations, the center position is the highest priority. Because of this, Rodriguez said he wants at least four players he can count on to accurately snap the football.
“Some guys have never done it before,” Rodriguez said. “They have some anxiety when they first do it. And once they do it for a while, they become comfortable with it.”
One player looking to become an option at center is redshirt sophomore Jacob Arzouman. The Salpointe Catholic High School graduate missed all last season from a torn ACL he suffered during fall camp. Arzouman still wears the green injury jersey during practice and isn’t 100 percent healthy, but he’s finally getting looks at the center position. So, too, are redshirt freshman Beau Boyster and sophomore Carter Wood.
Still, Putton is the leading man.
“Right now, Putton is up there,” Arzouman said. “He’s one of our senior leaders. It’s good to have a solid leader at the line, but everybody is competing for it. Once I come back, I want to try and compete for that spot, any of the guard spots. We all want to compete to push each other, make each other better.”
In addition to playing in a shotgun formation, the center also has an added leadership component in the Wildcats’ offense. Arzouman compared it to the quarterback position, where communication is crucial.
This is one reason why Putton’s experience makes him the leading choice for the role. But he’s still not used to the responsibility of center and said it comes with “unbelievable” pressure.
Fortunately for Putton, he was a stop-gap for all the injuries on the line last season, jumping from guard to tackle and back again. The constant change wasn’t easy for him, but it earned him something every good leader needs: Respect.
“It’s definitely hard; it’s definitely challenging to do all that,” Putton said about changing positions. “I think the fact that I could do it gained a lot of respect for me from the other guys.”