EUGENE - The question of who will be the Oregon Ducks' next center this season was not as sexy of a storyline as Darron Thomas versus Nate Costa at quarterback going into 2010. But, after the graduation of senior center Jordan Holmes, the position was one of the gaping holes Oregon needed to fill this offseason.
Last spring, it looked like a two-horse race between Hroniss Grasu and Karrington Armstrong. This summer, Hamani Stevens came back from a two-year Mormon mission in the Philippines and became the wildcard.
As the Ducks look ahead to Saturday's 5 p.m. PT Cowboys Classic against LSU at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington Texas, Grasu has emerged as the first-string center. Armstrong is listed as the No. 2 center on the two-deep roster, which was made public on Tuesday. Stevens is third-string.
Ducks coach Chip Kelly said that what made the 6-3, 291-pound Grasu stand out was 'just the comfort level with Hroniss with everybody, the coaching staff and the players. And more than anything, just the consistency he's shown throughout spring ball and during (fall) camp.'
Armstrong and Stevens will still be an important part of the equation for the Ducks, though. Armstrong expects to be snapping many balls each game, and Stevens is continuing to adjust to life as a student athlete.
'If (Grasu) starts, I know I'll be in there during the game also playing, and if I start, I know he'll be in the game later on playing,' Armstrong says. 'We are pretty close and similar in the way we are built and the way we play. So if Coach does start switching things around then it will work, because that's what we've been doing all fall camp, just flipping it around with different guys, trying to get that chemistry going with our team.'
Last year, Armstrong was not happy with the weight he had on his 6-3 frame, so he set about trying to lose some of it.
'I had a lot of just bad, sloppy weight, and we were trying to get it off,' he says.
But Armstrong took dieting to an extreme and lost too much. One of the biggest challenges for Armstrong this summer was getting his weight back up.
'I focused on my weight,' he says. 'A lot of it was me being lighter than I should've been. So over fall camp, that was really a big priority for me, to gain some weight back.'
Armstrong is now 270 pounds. He is still working to put on more good weight. He also wants to continue working on his understanding of the position, which requires a player to make calls for the rest of the offensive line.
More than anything, Armstrong wants to 'just really become the man out there and know what I have to do and when to do it and just be sure.'
Grasu, Armstrong and just about everyone else may have been surprised to see Stevens back in Eugene. During his two-year mission, many rumors circulated that Stevens would not be coming back to Oregon to play for the Ducks upon his return.
Stevens says there was never any truth to those rumors.
'I don't know how that rumor got spread,' he says. 'I never said I'd be going somewhere else. I had a brother who played for Utah. And we kind of joked around. He'd be like, 'When you come back, come here.' Stuff like that. But I never gave any serious thought about leaving Oregon and coming to a different school.'
It was a bit of a shock for Stevens to start playing football again after being away from the sport for so long.
'Two years off of football, it takes a toll on you,' he says. 'You don't think about it. You think you can just come back in and get going again. But it takes a little bit to get back to hitting and just playing football.'
Since coming back, Stevens, 6-3 and 305 pounds, has gotten a lot stronger. What has been most noticeable to coaches and teammates, though, is that he left Eugene after his redshirt year somewhat like a boy and returned as a man.
'Mentally, I've really grown,' Stevens says. 'Being able to go on the mission and do the things we do there and then come back and apply it to the aspect of football and life, it's really helped me out.'