Gutierrez: Li'l Wiz at center of Raiders rookie corps

Gutierrez: Li'l Wiz at center of Raiders rookie corps
July 29, 2011, 4:42 am
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Paul Gutierrez
CSNCalifornia.comNAPA -- He has the bloodline. The nasty disposition. The skill set to succeed in the league. And, as of Thursday morning, a signed contract to officially become an Oakland Raider.But keep in mind, Stefen Wisniewski is still a rookie."I've had it described to me as like this is a Big-10 All-Star team," the Penn State product said, when describing the talent level of the NFL. "You take the best players from the Big 10 teams and put them on one and play an All-Star team every week."Yeah, well, the talent he'll see every Sunday is probably a little better than that. But his point is understood.

Besides, a lot is expected of Li'l Wiz, who was the Raiders' first draft choice, taken No. 48 overall in the second round and nephew of Raiders great Steve Wisniewski, who just so happens to be the team's new assistant offensive line coach. And for good reason.From the moment he was drafted -- though there have been rumblings from deep within Silver and Blackdom the Raiders were also keen on Miami tackle Orlando Franklin, taken two picks before Li'l Wiz by Denver -- Oakland crowned him the new center.Even if he still had to win the job and with so much labor turmoil ahead. So without as much as a rookie mini-camp or an OTA or even a conversation about football with his uncle -- lockout rules forbade it -- here he was on the first practice of his first professional training camp, lined up at the brain of the offensive line. As a rookie."He's got to earn it, there's no question, but we drafted him for a reason: to play center," rookie head coach Hue Jackson said of Wisniewski. "We're going to give him every opportunity until something shows that he can't. But he showed that he can, and we're going to keep pushing him, but he's got a ways to go, we've got a ways to go, but I was impressed with his first day getting out there and competing."You've got Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly on the other side growling at you; that can be at tough battle. He handled it well for the first day."But before the first snap, he sat at his locker and marveled at his helmet. The same colors he stared at growing up in Pennsylvania while worshipping his uncle and, yes, rooting for the Raiders.Then he tugged it down over his ears and it fit just right. Like it was meant to be."It was really cool," he said. "I got my helmet; the helmet is great. It's going to be even better when I get a jersey and some pads on."To be honest, I was just sitting around smiling today. I'm actually a Raider. It kind of feels real for the first time today. Getting drafted and then being on my own (during the lockout), it kind of wasn't real yet. But wearing a helmet and practicing and getting at it, it feels great."According to the National Football Post, Wisniewski signed a 4.135-million contract with Oakland and a 1.507 million bonus.I asked him how steep the learning curve would be, what with so much valuable learning time missed this offseason."It is steep," he said. "This was Day 1, and normally that would have been two months ago and I would be a lot further along here at the start of training camp. All that being said, it's just going to take more of a commitment from me. We have 40 days until the first game. That's enough."He smiled. More of a smirk, really. But cocky? Not at all. It's actually closer to a swelling confidence. Plus, he knows exactly what he has to work on. And if he forgets, his uncle will be in his ear hole.Not that it was even a factor on Thursday.Rather, Li'l Wiz spoke about what he needs to do to improve. And it's the most basic of responsibilities for a center."I gotta be a little quicker with the snap," he said. "I am thinking about eight million things with who I'm blocking and what not, and snapping the ball really fast gets pushed to the wayside a little bit. That's something I have to work on."I am really excited about the strategy. We're moving around a lot, we got motions, we got shifts, we're going to mess with defenses, we've got all kinds of speed everywhere. The offensive line just has to hold up the defense a little bit and give those guys some running room."Besides, he'll learn on the job in practice, going up against the likes of a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro in Seymour and the blossoming Kelly."I am excited about the challenge," Wisniewski said. "They are going to kick my butt some time, but that's fine. It's going to make me better. To be honest, you want to be practicing against the best because when you get in the games it's like, 'Oh, these guys are good, too but they're no Richard Seymour.'"And they're no Big-10 All-Star team, either.