"I've always wanted to grow it out and I figured this is a good season to do it," said Kelce, the second-year center around whom the Eagles are building their offensive line. Does it make me look more intimidating?"
Well, yeah, kind of. Not that Jason Kelce needs to be more intimidating. He was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick in 2011 who emerged as an immediate starter who simply played outstanding football. It's not at all a reach to think that Kelce can become one of the best centers in the NFL as he gains experience and learns from the master, offensive line coach Howard Mudd.
He has spent the offseason at the NovaCare Complex, first recovering from a foot injury suffered in last year's finale against Washington, and then working on his body, which is up to a stout 305 pounds or so. Kelce plans to play about 10, maybe 15, pounds heavier than last season, adding some bulk and strength without sacrificing his tremendous quickness and agility.
All along, Kelce reviewed his rookie campaign and, quite honestly, was OK with what he saw. There were mistakes, plenty of them, but Kelce hung in there against great competition, all kinds of fronts and blitz looks and with an ever-changing line around him, two quarterbacks and a veteran line coach didn't want to hear a whisper of excuses.
"It's a night and day difference. It is a much more comfortable feeling now and so the things we're doing now is to fine-tune the mistakes we need to correct," he said. "As a rookie I think I did a good job. There are always things I can improve, and one area I want to work on is my pass pro (protection). I think it got better as the season went on, but that's still an ongoing thing I want to work on.
"At the beginning of the year, most of the mistakes I made were because of technique. At the end of the year, it was mostly not using my help that got me into trouble. This year I want to institute a couple of different techniques so that my set isn't always the exact same thing."
Kelce knows that Mudd has "taken my game to a whole new level" and that without Mudd he wouldn't have "been a starting center in the NFL last year." Mudd didn't baby Kelce in the early days when the rookies went straight to training camp and learned the offense on the fly. Even with veteran Jamaal Jackson there, Mudd turned to Kelce to start from the first day of training camp. They split reps in practice, but Mudd knew Kelce was his guy from the get-go.
It proved to be the right call. Kelce became the first Eagles center to start on opening day as a rookie since Gene Ceppetelli in 1968 and he was named an All-Rookie selection by respected Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin. Kelce handled all that was thrown at him and Mudd was right there heaping responsibility on him -- isolating Kelce on nose tackles at times when the Eagles played against 34 fronts, allowing Kelce the chance to show off his athleticism in the short passing game as Kelce reached the second level blocking down the field and making sure the rookie was on top of his game with the line calls and the mental checks.
One year later, Kelce is a seasoned veteran, a leader on the team and potentially one of the best centers this franchise has seen.
"It's completely different for me in the locker room now," said Kelce. "Last year, those guys didn't know me. I had to earn their respect, and rightfully so. I don't know if I earned their respect until we were about 10 games into the season. I think I have that respect from my peers now. I feel like I earned it every single day. That's the only way to earn it, in my eyes.
"Look, Todd (Herremans) has been here for about eight years. Evan (Mathis) has been in the league for a long time. Jason (Peters) is in the Pro Bowl every year. I'm still looked at as the young guy, and that's fine with me. I just go out there every day and work hard and lead that way."
There is a lot more to do up front. The Eagles are recovering from the loss of Peters, who is likely out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon injury. Demetress Bell is in at left tackle, and he is new to Mudd and to the Eagles and there is a learning curve to be expected. Kelce has a year of experience under his belt and he has applied himself throughout the offseason with his work in the weight room and in film study.
The confidence level among the team, and that includes everyone, is sky high. The four wins to end last season resonate through the halls of the NovaCare Complex. It's a good place to be, a fine launching point for 2012.
"Everyone is amped," said Kelce. "You can feel it. We believe in each other. We finished with some strong wins last year, and we know what we are capable of doing. We just have to keep that intensity, keep our focus, and work hard."
That is Kelce in a nutshell. He works hard, he pushes himself and that approach, combined with his athletic skills and intelligence, is pushing his game toward something special. Why not prepare for what's ahead? The beard is flowing, with a promise to keep it going for as long as 2012 lasts.