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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU guard Ethan Pocic (77) advances a fumble, but it was ruled down already, Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.

Travis Spradling

MOBILE, Ala. — When he moved up to the high school level, Ethan Pocic wanted to play linebacker. That’s the position he played in eighth grade, and the one he loved most.

There were only two problems: He was 6-foot-1 and weighed 230 pounds as a ninth-grader. And the head coach at Illinois' Lemont High School, Eric Michaelsen, also served as offensive line coach.

“I’m like, ‘Son, I think you’re going to be an offensive lineman,’ ” Michaelsen said, retelling the story. “What do they call it? Head coach prerogative?”

That was Pocic’s first big position move in a career full of them, one that has led him here — to the nation’s most high-profile college all-star game. Pocic, the former LSU center and a projected early-round NFL draft pick, will likely start Saturday’s Senior Bowl at center. But eight years after his linebacker hopes were dashed, he finds himself in another position quandary: guard or center?

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LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic (77) holds onto Mississippi defensive end Fadol Brown (6) in the second half, Saturday, October 22, 2016, at LSU in Baton Rouge, La. No holding penalty was called on the play.

The 6-6, 305-pounder played both spots this week during practices at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. He always started drills at center, snapping to the South team’s No. 1 quarterback, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, before shifting to guard for a few snaps.

Guard, center. Center, guard. Does it really matter?

“I think it’s the teams’ preference,” Pocic said. “I know a lot of teams like me at center, some at guard. I feel the most comfortable at center, just because that’s where I spent 75 percent of my time at LSU.”

Pocic’s position is a long-running debate. Many thought he would move from center to tackle in 2016 as a senior after the Tigers lost tackles Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander. He started his LSU career at guard before moving to center — and he began his football career at a surprising spot: cornerback.

He played cornerback on his fifth-grade flag football team. His parents barred him from playing tackle football until the seventh grade, so he suffered through the less intense game of yanking colorful flags off the opponent's belt.

A decade later, he’s still embarrassed about that.

“I was the dweeb who played flag football,” he said.

He was too big to play on the seventh-grade tackle football team, forcing him to move up a level. The eighth-grade team wasn’t for him, either: He never played.

“I’ll admit,” he said, “I was a scrub.”

No longer. Pocic started 36 games for the Tigers over four years, evolving into an All-American as a senior. He’s now perceived as the top center in the 2017 draft class, projected as a first- to third-round selection.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Pocic as his “most NFL-ready” center, a player who could contribute immediately.

After a week’s worth of practice in Mobile, Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, the South team coach and offensive coordinator, has seen enough.

“Talented big guy. Smart, athletic, tough,” Jackson said. “Comes from a great background and had a great career in college. He’s going to have a chance to play in this league. I think we all know that.”

But where?

In a way, Pocic’s uncertain position is a positive for his draft value. He’s not just a center; he can play guard and tackle, too.

“Ethan’s value is actually his versatility,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “These (NFL) teams only dress seven or eight linemen (for a game). If he can play anywhere literally across the line, I think that’s really going to help him in the draft.”

He was versatile in high school, too. Michaelsen played him some at nose tackle during Pocic’s senior season. For a 300-pounder, his quick feet set him apart.

His foot speed can be traced to a grueling summer before his eighth-grade year. He got serious about football, even participating in a speed-training class. Picture a dozen football players hopping on and off treadmills.

Being a bench-riding “scrub” in seventh grade really set him off. He played plenty as an eighth-grader after that summer, starting at right tackle and linebacker.

“That’s when I first thought of myself as an athlete,” he said.

His training these days includes much more than treadmills. He’s working out at an EXOS facility in San Diego, the same place Hawkins trained last year.

Hudson Houck, a 74-year-old former NFL offensive line coach, is Pocic’s tutor. Houck is teaching him different techniques, using his nearly 50 years of coaching to fill Pocic’s mind.

“They say there’s 20 different ways to skin a cat, and they all work. (LSU offensive line coach Jeff) Grimes has great techniques. Coach Houck has great techniques,” he said. “One way Grimes has us redirect (our weight) is stepping with the inside foot first. Houck has us step with the back foot first. At the end of the day, you do them both right, (and) they both work. It’s just preference. It’s good to have both to pick from.”

He’ll return to San Diego on Sunday to prepare for the NFL combine, set for Feb. 28 to March 6 in Indianapolis. He’ll also continue rehabbing his knees.

Pocic played the first half of his senior year with a sprained MCL in his left knee. He played the latter half of the season with a swollen, fluid-filled bursa sac in his right knee, a nagging but not debilitating issue that Pocic compared to having "a rock in your shoe."

That’s nothing compared to his senior year of high school, Michaelsen said. Pocic caught mononucleosis during preseason camp. He played with the illness for the first half of the season before his mother forced him to visit a doctor.

“I didn’t realize it until Week 6,” Pocic said. “I dropped 25 pounds. I didn’t miss a game. The doctor said I could play because I had already went through the worst stage of it.”

“He could have broken a limb,” Michaelsen said, “and still played.”

After a recent Senior Bowl practice, a half-dozen NFL scouts stood in line waiting for Pocic to complete media interviews. 

He's a hot commodity these days — no matter what position he plays. 

"This morning," Pocic said Tuesday, "I woke up and there was a call at 6:30 from a scout. I was like, ‘Dang, these guys don’t give up.’ "


Senior Bowl locals

 Player

 College

 Hometown

 Position

 Team Jersey #

 Ethan Pocic

 LSU

 Lemont, Ill.

 OL

 South #77

 Duke Riley

 LSU

 Buras

 LB

 South #0

 Travin Dural

 LSU

 Breaux Bridge

 WR

 South #83

 Dwayne Thomas

 LSU

 New Orleans

 DB

 South, #23

 Trent Taylor

 Louisiana Tech

 Shreveport

 WR

 North #5

 Tanzel Smart

 Tulane

 Baton Rouge

 DL

 South #97

 Chad Williams

 Grambling

 Baton Rouge

 WR

 South #84

Note: LSU’s Kendell Beckwith and Tre’Davious White were selected but will not play in the game because of injuries.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.