The Raiders will have two rookies right in the middle of things literally and another who could be there figuratively when they visit the Tennessee Titans Sunday at LP Stadium.
Each of the first three draft picks will start _ middle linebacker Rolando McClain (first round, No. 8 overall), left defensive end Lamarr Houston (second round, No. 44 overall) and center Jared Veldheer (third round, No. 69 overall).
Veldheer is the only starter, and considering his background, may have the biggest challenge.
At 6-foot-8 and listed at 315 pounds, Veldheer is already the tallest starting center in NFL history until a stats services unearths a Cro-Magnon -7-footer. He’s had little experience _ the equivalent of a preseason game at most _ yet the Raiders were sure enough of his skill set to sit him out of the preseason finale against Seattle.
He’s been doing the rookie thing since learning of his starting position, politely saying as little as possible _ even to the point where he declined to specify how much center he played in college.
Which, by the way, would be zero.
Nate Schreffler, his college coach at Division II Hillsdale, said Veldheer didn’t play center for the Chargers but most of the film he’d seen during recruiting had him over the ball.
“The center thing was a little bit of a curve ball, but I’m not surprised he can handle it,” Schreffler said when contacted by phone this week. “he;’s just an athletic, competitive kid, and if you ask him to do something, he’ll get it done.. He was a real flexible guy coming out of high school, but didn’t look too tall at his pad level, so I don’t think blocking shorter guys would be an issue.”
That echoes what coach Tom Cable has saying from the start _ that Veldheer may be tall, but he’s built closer to the ground than than most and that the height isn’t necessarily a negative.
Schreffler raved about Veldheer’s capacity for work. He said Veldheer could bench press 185 pounds 10 times upon his arrival _ “ for a guy that size it wasn’t very good” _ and by the time he got to the NFL scouting combine he was in the early 30s with 225 pounds.
By the time Veldheer was a senior, there was rarely a drill where scouts weren’t watching, yet he rarely let it go to his head.
“I told him it wasn’t my job to get him ready for the NFL, it was to get him ready for the next opponent, and he never had a problem with that,” Schreffler said.
Schreffler said it’s his understanding that Veldheer was quickly taken under his wing by veteran left guard Robert Gallery, and that along with veteran right guard Cooper Carlisle, the rookie will have plenty of help on both sides.
Defensively, McClain could have hardly had a bigger challenge for his first NFL game, not that he seems all that intimidated by it.
He will be the middle linebacker charged with defensive signals and alignments in attempting to shut off the NFL’s leading rusher last season, Chris Johnson.
He will in some cases be the spy for Tennessee quarterback Vince Young. That’s a a play-by-play dilemma in that it will be up to McClain to determine whether Young is running to the line of scrimmage to run, or running to the line of scrimmage to back off and throw a pass.
As for Houston, his job won’t be to be in the middle of decision-making, but chances are he’ll be centrally located when skirmishes break out. Since his first practice with the Raiders, Houston has been quick to push and prod, all the while elevating the level of intensity along a defensive unit that sorely needs it.