KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The last time Chiefs guard Ryan Lilja had to play center in an NFL game before last Sunday was…well…never.
In fact, Lilja, who now becomes the Chiefs’ starting center because of Rodney Hudson’s season-ending injury, can’t remember playing the position in college or high school or even Pee Wee football, for that matter.
OK, there was that one time he played center…in junior-high basketball.
“It’s going to be different, no doubt,” Lilja said Wednesday. “Nerve-wrecking isn’t the right term. I’m not freaking out. But when you play a certain position so long as I have at guard, there are things you don’t have to think about. And now you do. It’s not second nature to me to play center. I’m running things through my head that I never have before.
“But I’ve been taking a lot of snaps in the spring and summer. That’s been the contingency plan and I feel I’m ready.”
Lilja’s audition couldn’t have gone much better last Sunday against the Saints. After Hudson went down in the third quarter, the Chiefs’ offense not only didn’t miss a beat, it actually improved.
Running back Jamaal Charles gained 172 of his 233 yards rushing with Lilja at center and rookie Jeff Allen at guard. And despite the thundering noise inside the Superdome, Lilja didn’t miss a snap count and didn’t fire off an errant snap in the shotgun formation.
“I’m not going to lie,” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “It was scary. We’d only taken snaps in practice and here we are doing it for the first time in a game in the Superdome. But Ryan did a great job.
“To me, Ryan Lilja was the hero of the game. He was amazing.”
Cassel wasn’t sure what to expect from Lilja, who came into the league as a guard in 2004. So Cassel told his replacement center to just keep it simple, especially in the shotgun formation.
“We were talking on the sideline and I said ‘Just try to put the ball in my hands when we’re in the shotgun. That’s i,’ ” Cassel said. “And he did. What a great job.”
Of course, there’s far more to playing center in the NFL than just snapping the football. The center is often the quarterback’s quarterback – pointing out potential blitzers and getting assignment switches to his fellow linemen.
The mental adjustment is perhaps the biggest hurdle.
“Yeah, especially when you haven’t played it your whole career,” Lilja said. “You’re communicating with other guys on the line and with your quarterback. All that stuff you don’t have to worry about when you’re playing guard.
“But it’s football. It’s still blocking the guy across from you.”
And Lilja isn’t exactly complaining about his new gig.
“I’m one of those guys that expects the worst and hopes for the best, so I figured this might happen sooner or later,” he said. “Guys get hurt. Guys go down all the time. That’s why I have been snapping in practice every day, just in case. You got to have a backup plan. We got guys taking snaps in case something happens to me.”
And if Lilja goes down, that guy might be right guard Jon Asamoah.
“We practice it all the time, the different positions,” Asamoah said. “When your number gets called, you have to be ready, whatever the need is.”
This Sunday, Lilja knows he will be tested perhaps even more against a defensive line he said is on the of the best in football.
“It’s going to be exciting because it’s a big divisional game,” Lilja said. “It’s only Wednesday and I’m already pretty pumped.”