Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Ask UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez what sort of qualities he looks for in a center, and the ensuing word cloud paints a clear picture.
Experience. Consistency. Leadership. Communication. Execution. Those are the traits Sanchez rattles off when describing the ideal middle man for his offensive line. So it makes sense that with presumed starter Sid Acosta injured and expected to miss the first month of the season, Sanchez is turning to someone he trusts in the interim.
Junior Zack Singer is currently listed atop the Rebels’ depth chart at center, and it’s because Sanchez believes he can handle the intangible responsibilities that come with the position. That means understanding the playbook and keeping the offensive line organized at all times, something Sanchez doesn’t take for granted.
“The toughest thing about playing a young guy there is you have to set the front,” Sanchez said. “Every time, you’re making the calls, you’re making the checks, you’re making sure you’re setting the pass protection, you’re communicating with the guards on out to the tackles. We’ve had the luxury of having [two-year starter] Will Kreitler the last two years — he was a juco guy so he was an older guy coming in, and he picked it up fast and we never had to worry about it.”
Acosta, a junior college product, was expected to be a plug-and-play replacement this season following Kreitler’s graduation, but his knee injury put the position up for grabs in the spring. Singer looks to be the leader now, splitting time with senior J’Ondray Sanders and freshman Justice Oluwaseun.
Singer was a four-year all-state performer at Bishop Gorman from 2010-2014, so few know his game better than Sanchez, who made his name by coaching the Gaels’ to a bucketful of state championships. After playing one season at Kent State, Singer transferred to UNLV and reunited with his old coach, and he has spent the last two years immersing himself in the Rebels’ offensive system.
Now, a week into training camp and less than a month from the season opener, Singer is being counted on to lead the Rebels’ offensive line and provide support for freshman quarterback Armani Rogers.
Singer is embracing his opportunity to step up.
“I feel really comfortable with the offense,” Singer said after practice on Tuesday morning. “I’ve been here for two, two-and-a-half years now. I’ve played guard, I’ve played center, so I have a good grip on the offense and that helps sometimes when Armani maybe doesn’t know what to do, or some of the young offensive linemen aren’t sure what’s going on. That’s where the center comes in and leads those guys and makes sure everyone is on the same page.”
At 6-foot-2, 320 pounds, Singer has tremendous size for a center. He played defensive line during his lone season at Kent State, and Sanchez praises his power as a blocker. Singer’s ability to move defenders should help the Rebels run the ball this season.
In the passing game, Singer said he is working to improve his snapping technique. He said his shotgun snaps have been erratic in training camp, but that more reps should help him get that issue under control before the start of the season.
Singer knows that the rest of the offense relies on him to execute consistently. If he can’t get the ball to Rogers on time and on target, the Rebels’ talented offense will never get on track.
“Basically, the center is second quarterback,” he said. “Armani calls the plays and it’s on him to be the leader, but up front I need to lead the guys. I need to make all the line calls, I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. To be a center, you really need to be the quarterback’s right-hand man. You work together on every single play.”
If Singer can lock down the center spot for now and deliver what Sanchez needs out of the position, UNLV will be hard to stop.
“It’s exciting, it really is,” Singer said. “The sky is the limit. I think we have the best running back corps in the country. We’ve got Armani — he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country, the best quarterback in the conference. The O-line is a bunch of studs up front. So I need to do a good job of leading those guys and stepping up to their level, because this is my first year that I’ll be starting and those guys have already all been starters.
"If that happens and we all work together as an offense, we can do big things.”