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Austin Corbett's move to center has seemed "inevitable"

Austin Corbett

CHARLOTTE — Austin Corbett didn't get a lot of advance notice that he was a center now. Unless you count his college coach telling him this is exactly how it was going to happen 10 years ago.

But regardless of the timing, the veteran offensive lineman is handling the move inside the same way he handled moving across the country after winning a Super Bowl ring, the same way he attacked knee rehab, and the same way he helped Bryce Young prepare even when he wasn't playing — one day, and now one snap at a time.

With a smile. And with a sense of perspective and humor, which helps.

Corbett became a center officially on March 11, after the Panthers agreed to deals with Robert Hunt and then Damien Lewis in the opening hours of free agency. But he's been in the process of becoming one his entire career.

"You know, just scrolling in my phone, and here comes free agency, and I said, oh, there's a guard," Corbett recalled with a grin. "And I figured, OK, and then it's like oh, we got another one. There you go. Well, I guess it leaves me on the inside.

"I just talk too much anyway. So it was inevitable. I was going to end up in there at some point in my career."

"Yeah, this was always coming," former Nevada coach Brian Polian said, after calling his shot a decade ago.

Austin Corbett

Corbett can laugh easily about it now, partially because after the ordeal that was 2023, things can only get better. He suffered a torn ACL in January in the final game of the 2022 season, then rehabbed his way back to the lineup before getting hit in the same left knee and tearing the MCL in November. (It's worth noting that he didn't miss a snap after the injury in the Dallas game since he was hesitant to come out after such a long comeback.)

But this new assignment is no joke, not some afterthought since being able to communicate the line calls and operate in tandem with his quarterback makes it imperative to get right.

And when you begin thinking about Corbett at center, it's probably helpful to realize that for Young, he quickly became a trusted partner in this process, even when he wasn't playing the position.

The Panthers quarterback said he was "super-excited" about having Corbett directly in front of him, based on the trust that was developed in so many meetings last season, and the fact that Corbett was always such an effective communicator.

"He obviously wasn't healthy for a lot of the year, but he was so engaged and so into it," Young said. "If you weren't here and didn't know everything that had happened, you'd never know that he wasn't playing. He was taking some of the most thorough notes I've ever seen. In every single protection meeting we had, he was talking the most, even the times when he wasn't even in the game.

"So he's someone that I've asked a ton of questions to, we've had a bunch of conversations even last year with no plans of this happening. But that's just kind of the type of guy he is, so I'm super-excited for the opportunity and to continue to grow that relationship."

Austin Corbett, Bryce Young

But even though this recent move was sudden, it's been coming for years.

Corbett laughed and recalled Polian, then the head coach at Nevada, telling his left tackle that playing left tackle wasn't likely in his future beyond Reno.

"He's like, Corbs, you're 6-4, and you don't have freaky long arms, so if you want to play in the league, you might want to learn to snap," Corbett recalled. "So I was constantly being groomed to be a center, and here, in the year 2024, it's finally happened."

Polian recalled it well. The son of former Panthers general manager and Hall of Famer Bill Polian and a football lifer himself (he was here with his father in the early days of the franchise), he recognized the traits 10 years ago.

"Well, the evaluation of and projection of football players kind of runs in the family," the younger Polian said with a laugh.

Brian Polian

Polian remembered Corbett's career beginning as a 240-pound walk-on who struggled to keep weight on when he first got to Nevada. So it wasn't like everyone saw a long NFL career coming. But there were things beyond the physical that pointed him toward a career in the middle.

"Well it starts with the recognition of how important the center position is on any offensive line, but especially in the National Football League," Polian said. "And my admiration for how intelligent and hard working Austin was and still is. I just thought the position suited his strengths."

Of course, being an eventual center is one thing. When you're playing at Nevada, and you're the best offensive lineman on the team, you're a left tackle, and that's just how it is.

"No, I never considered it; he was too valuable playing left tackle for us," Polian said of switching him then. "I mean, in the world of mid-major college football, Group of 5, he was an elite left tackle. But I also had enough experience and exposure to know that that wasn't necessarily going to fit at the next level.

"He was a wonderful college football tackle, but I knew that he wasn't the prototypical physical makeup for that position. But I did think his toughness, his work ethic, his intelligence, his ability to communicate would make him a perfect center. I've been really happy for the success that he's had playing guard, but I don't even think he's the prototypical guard. I mean, in the NFL, the guards are kind of the road graders, guys who are 325 or 330, and that's just not who he is."

Austin Corbett

But those same qualities that caused Young to develop a trust in Corbett when he was a guard were evident back at Nevada, and Polian said that all those intangible traits stood out as clearly as the physical ones.

"First of all, he is incredibly intelligent, both just innate intelligence and football intelligence," Polian said of the player who nearly went to medical school before he realized how good he was at football.

"Plus, he really works at it," Polian continued. "I think he's got one of those personalities that he's so comfortable in his own skin like he knows who he is that it crosses over with every demographic in your locker room. Black, white, old, young; people respect him because he's not trying to be anything other than who he is, and they respect the work ethic.

"He's not trying to be something that he's not. He's just a good guy, and he's almost borderline a little bit nerdy, which I always loved about him. And when guys are comfortable in their own skin and they're not trying to pretend to be someone else, I think people respect that and connect with it."

And when you couple that with the work it took him to become the player he was at Nevada, Polian saw the qualities that the NFL was looking for.

Austin Corbett

But even after he was drafted higher than many anticipated — 33rd overall by the Browns in 2018 — it took a minute for the vision to become clear.

For one thing, the Browns weren't drafting him to be a left tackle, even though Joe Thomas had just retired. But Cleveland was well-stocked in the middle of the line, with center JC Tretter and guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler.

So, without knowing how any of it was going to shake out, Corbett started snapping the ball from the second day of OTAs, setting the stage for this assignment that everyone keeps describing as inevitable.

Of course, having game experience doing it is different, and Corbett played some center during the preseason with the Browns in 2018 and 2019. But because Tretter was already a veteran by that time, Corbett knew he needed to be ready at all times, so he prepared that way.

"With JC at center there, he was an old grumpy vet, pretty beat up, and wouldn't really practice," Corbett recalled. "So I'd practice all week and he'd take all the glory on Sundays. There were times he'd go down, and I was just kind of staring at him in the game, like, he's not getting up, so I'd run over, get snaps with Baker (Mayfield). Then you look up, and he's still going back in there.

"So it's just a constant up and down, and it's been a part of my entire career, and here we are again. So every coach I've ever had told me that, you know, you're playing center at some point in your career, you know that, right?"

Robert Hunt, Austin Corbett, Damien Lewis

So Tuesday morning, when he walked out to the Panthers practice field, and immediately took his place between Hunt and Lewis and started snapping the ball, it felt, ... well, normal.

"I played center plenty to where it's; you just do it," he said with a shrug. "You don't think about it. Your body's going to take over; you play football Once you snap the ball, the body positioning stuff is the same, all the angles are going to be the same.

"It's just football, right?"

It seems almost glib when he says it. And while he makes the joke about talking too much fairly often, his ability to communicate the call at the line of scrimmage is critical, so his ability to talk is key to his new role.

Austin Corbett, Bryce Young

"Now you're the guy leading the charge, and you've got the responsibility of getting all five of you on the same page," Corbett said. You've got to see the safety, the linebackers, the corners, the guys up front, and do it quickly and assertively in a way that exudes confidence in the other guys around you.

"If you're giving a call, and it's shaky, they're not going to feel that. So you go up there, you speak with confidence straight to the point, get them out and get ready to roll and that's just going to pick up the tempo of everybody behind."

That's what he's tried to do throughout his career.

Even when he was a left tackle trapped in a center's body.

Or when he was a starting guard in the Super Bowl.

And especially now that he's actually a center, since it only took him seven years in the NFL to get to the place where everyone told him he'd always end up.

View photos of the Panthers' voluntary offseason workouts on Tuesday.

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