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Carolina Panthers

Alabama's latest center of attention

Back in 2007, the Panthers used a second-round draft pick to select a center from a college football powerhouse with the first name of Ryan.

In the nine seasons since, Southern California product Ryan Kalil has been selected to the Pro Bowl five times.

While no one could ever predict that level of success, the center in this year's draft class labeled most likely to succeed happens to be a Ryan from a college football powerhouse.

Meet Alabama center Ryan Kelly.

"I think it's a crucial position because you really do control the offense, you and the quarterback," Kelly said. "A lot of times our offense relies on a good center, so I always felt the challenge was there week in and week out.

"I knew I had to become prepared day in and day out to put our offense in the best position to be successful."

Kelly took over in 2013 as Alabama's starting center for Barrett Jones, the outgoing winner of the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the top center in college football. Like Jones, Kelly wrapped up his college career by winning the Rimington Trophy and a national championship.

Whereas Jones was a fourth-round draft pick, Kelly could possibly be a first-rounder.

"Where you're going to go in the draft, no one really knows," Kelly said. "This is just a great opportunity, and you can only control what you can control."

Kelly saw action behind Jones in 10 games in 2012 and surely learned a thing or two, and Kelly's game continued to benefit from the wealth of talent at Alabama well after Jones turned pro. Day after day in practice, Kelly locked horns with a pair of defensive tackles that also could be selected in the first round of this year's draft.

"Going against Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson every day, those guys are incredible," Kelly said. "Going against those guys every day made us a better offensive line, made me a better player."

Over the course of his college career, Kelly – much like Kalil for the Panthers – also developed into a better leader.

"I've always been the kind of guy that wanted to walk the walk before I talked the talk, so to say. By leading by example, I think, you can earn the trust of other people," Kelly said. "This year was a big step for me. I tried to become more of a vocal leader, which isn't always easy to do unless you're kind of just given that talent. I'm always evolving. I think we're always evolving into new leadership; it's never something that you can attain overnight."

Success in the NFL typically doesn't come overnight, either – Kalil didn't make the Pro Bowl his first two seasons but has made it in all but two seasons since. But Kelly, much like he did in college, appears to have the make-up to improve relatively quickly on the next level.

"I think when you're young, the game is so fast," Kelly said. "You don't have the reps, you don't have the experience, but once you get starts underneath your belt, once you start playing in games, and realizing things, seeing things, it becomes fun."

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