CINCINNATI – Doug Marrone may be the head coach of an NFL team now but he’s never left his roots as an offensive lineman.
“I’ve always believed the center position, just like the quarterback position, is a position of leadership,” said Marrone this week as his Buffalo Bills prepared for Sunday’s game with the Bengals. “Whether you like it or not, that’s where you are.”
Marrone is plenty happy with the center he has in Eric Wood, a Cincinnati native who was lightly recruited out of high school at Elder but turned himself into a first-round draft choice. He is now the anchor of a line that has helped the Bills produce the top-ranked rushing attack in the AFC through the first five weeks of the season.
Buffalo is averaging 152.6 yards per game on the ground. The Bills (2-3) have had to rely on their rushing game in part because they began the season with rookie E.J. Manuel at quarterback. Manuel suffered a knee injury at Cleveland last week and will miss the next few games, so the Bills have turned to Thaddeus Lewis as their starter. Lewis has NFL experience but was on the Buffalo practice squad until Manuel was injured.
The Bills will likely rely even more on Wood, the offensive line and running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
“Having a better win-loss record would mean more to me,” said Wood of the rushing stats. “We’ve been able to run the ball pretty effectively but we have talented running backs that make us look good. I’m not going to boast and say that we’re playing the best of anybody in the league upfront. We’re probably not, but we are doing some things well and, like I said, very talented backs.”
The Bills signed Wood to a five-year extension worth $27.7 million just before the start of the regular season. He’s started all 52 games he’s appeared in since the Bills selected him 28th overall in 2009 out of Louisville. He’s yet to play a full 16-game season because of injuries – a broken leg in his rookie season and a torn ACL in 2011 were the biggies – but he’s healthy now and the Bills had no reservation about signing him to an extension.
“They stuck with me through two major injuries,” said Wood. “A lot of injuries are out of your control but for them to still have the confidence in me as a player to give me a deal meant a lot to me.”
There are 18 high schools in the United States of America that at the beginning of this NFL season could boast of having four alumni playing in the league. Six of the schools are in California, five in Florida and three in Texas. Elder is the only school from Ohio with that distinction.
Besides Wood, tight end Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota) and long snappers Mike Windt (San Diego) and Jack McQuaide (St. Louis) are also in the NFL. Linebacker Ricky Brown ended a seven-year career last season, the first six with Oakland and then spending his last year on injured reserve with Super Bowl champion Baltimore. Wood and Windt were part of Elder’s two state championship teams in 2002 and 2003.
“That’s a great accomplishment for us,” said Wood. “We’ve got two long snappers, which to me means we’ve got really smart guys coming out of Elder because that’s the best position in football.”
Wood said the state title game against Lakewood St. Edward, a 31-7 victory, in his senior season of 2003 was the most memorable game of his time at Elder. The Panthers had beaten top-ranked Warren Harding 21-19 in the snow in Canton in 2002 to end a 17-year drought of Division I championships for Cincinnati teams but Wood was a reserve on that team.
He was a starter as a senior. Still, despite the team’s success and his part in winning a second straight state championship, he received few college offers.
“Recruiting is crazy but the way it is if you don’t play much as a junior you don’t get recruited real heavy,” said Elder coach Doug Ramsey.
The only real offer Wood got was from Ohio University and he was set to go to Athens until offensive line coach Mike Summers left OU to join Bobby Petrino’s staff in Louisville. That’s how Wood ended up with the Cardinals. Developing into a first-round draft choice, obviously no recruiter saw that one coming. Neither did Ramsey, although he’s not surprised from one aspect.
“I think if you look at those guys, they all have a great work ethic,” said Ramsey. “They’re not NFL players just because God gave them a certain amount of ability. You look at any one of those guys and their work ethic is incredible. Even as good of a player as Kyle Rudolph was and Ricky Brown was, you never had guys who worked as hard.” Wood will be matched up most of the game against Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko.
The Bengals are ranked 10th in the NFL, allowing 95.6 yards rushing per game. Peko is well aware of Wood and his background.
“He’s a hell of a player, grew up here in Cincinnati, went to Elder and he’s a first-round pick,” said Peko. “Coach (Mike Zimmer) said he’s their best offensive lineman and so I’m excited about that. I love going against good players and I love competition. Their offensive line works good together. They do a lot of the zone blocking scheme a lot of teams are doing these days. If we just attack the line of scrimmage and dominate their offensive line we should have a great day.”
Wood said he’s getting at least 25 tickets for family and friends traveling to Buffalo for the game.
“We’ve got a ton of people coming up so it should be a lot of fun but this is a business weekend for me,” he said. “My wife has got to handle all of that because this is an excellent defense I’m trying to prepare for this week and I don’t want to be distracted at all by that.”