Incognito to start at center for Rams

Updated: September 16, 2006, 10:50 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

There were times, during a troubled college career in which he was dismissed from two schools, when Richie Incognito probably wished that he could actually become his unusual surname.

On Sunday, when the St. Louis Rams' second-year veteran offensive lineman makes his first regular-season start at center, Incognito might experience that feeling again. But with longtime starter Andy McCollum lost for the season to a severe knee injury sustained in last week's opener, and the Rams in need of someone to step in and stabilize the critical position, Incognito knows there is nowhere to hide.

"I'm sure there are going to be a lot eyes on me, but that's just the nature of things, you know?" said Incognito, who started at left guard last week, but will move to center, a position he hasn't played since his freshman season at Nebraska in 2002, against the San Francisco 49ers. "It's taking me a little while to get the hang (of playing center) again. Like, the shotgun snap is something I haven't done in a long time. But I think once I get into it, and I'm just acting on instincts, it will come back."

After deliberating over a few less acceptable options, Rams first-year coach Scott Linehan and his staff decided that moving Incognito represented their best alternative. Veteran Todd Steussie, who has played primarily at tackle during his 13-year career and who was signed in the summer to add experienced depth to the line, will move into the lineup at left guard.

The changes shake up an offensive line unit that played well in last week's upset victory over Denver. But the Rams feel the moves are the best ones they could have made under the circumstances, and the coaches seem confident that Incognito has the right makeup to handle the switch to center.

McCollum had played in 155 straight games, and quarterback Marc Bulger had developed a comfort zone with the veteran snapper, so Incognito understands he's got big shoes to fill. He will concentrate mostly on his technique, he noted, and on executing the correct calls in making changes in the blocking schemes. And he will try not to notice that, at the new position, he is operating in much tighter quarters.

"At center, I've got a (nose tackle) three inches away from me," Incognito said. "At guard, I've got guy three or four feet away. It's a space thing and it's a technique thing, especially with hand placement, and (the challenge) is to know what everyone else is doing and where I fit into that. A lot of it is going to be learning on the fly and just reacting to things as they happen."

A third-round choice in the 2005 draft, Incognito didn't play a single snap as a rookie. He held out in a contract dispute for the first month of the season, finally signed, and then was placed on the non-football injury list because he had not fully recovered from a knee injury suffered at the combine workouts. But early in camp this summer, Incognito's competitiveness, strength and in-line blocking skills were obvious, and he easily bumped incumbent left guard Claude Terrell from the starting job.

Incognito, 23, played well in last week's victory over the Broncos, but just as he was getting comfortable at guard, and the line was beginning to gel, McCollum, a fixture in the St. Louis lineup, went down.

"You don't just lose a guy like that and not take some kind of a step back," Incognito. "You don't replace him. I mean, I don't consider myself a replacement. I'm just going to go on, try to play my game and feel my way around, and hope to settle in as fast as I can."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.