Ask University of Kansas football coach David Beaty which Jayhawks among the team’s 22 offensive linemen will play center, and he will tell you “about eight” of them spent some time snapping the ball during the team’s first couple of preseason practices.
Beaty will go on to explain how a team without playable second- and third-string centers can’t survive, and KU is doing all it can to develop depth at a position where it lost its 2017 starter, Mesa Ribordy, to retirement during the offseason.
But before the fourth-year head coach actually jumps into his speech, he will bring up the name of one man: Alex Fontana.
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, Fontana graduated from the University of Houston before transferring to KU early this summer.
The Toronto native sat out in 2017 at Houston due to injury. The season prior, though, Fontana played in 11 games for the Cougars (9-4) and made five starts.
“That guy playing at such a high level, a lot of big games, that was a big get for us,” Beaty declared.
Now KU’s offensive line coach, A.J. Ricker served in an analyst role on Tom Herman’s staff at UH in 2016. Beaty said Ricker’s relationship with Fontana “went a long way” in making sure he finished his college career as a Jayhawk.
“I’ve really enjoyed having him here,” Beaty added of the new KU center, who has not yet been made available for interviews. “His leadership has been strong.”
In his lone season playing at Houston after transferring there from New Mexico Military Institute, Fontana started in victories over Lamar, Cincinnati, Tulsa and Central Florida. He finished third on the team with 32 knockdown blocks and received a 75 percent grade on 537 snaps over the course of his 11 appearances.
When KU offensive coordinator Doug Meacham examines Fontana and what his presence could mean for the team, the assistant coach finds it hard to discuss the center without mentioning Fontana’s experience.
“A lot of reps,” Meacham began.
Kansas, the coordinator added, likely landed Fontana as a grad transfer because at 6-2 and 300 pounds the O-lineman lacked the measurables many Power Five programs seek. In the months ahead, Fontana will get to test his skills against the Big 12, as opposed to the American Athletic Conference competition he faced at Houston.
“He’s a good player,” Meacham said. “He’s smart. I know this. That guy has to ID all the defenses and all that stuff, so you’ve got to have some wits about you.”
Asked if those traits in particular made Fontana comparable to Ribordy, who started 10 games at center for KU in 2017, Meacham explained that he didn’t want to dole out too much credit to any member of the offense this early in the preseason.
“I don’t want to jump the gun here, but I’d say they’re similar,” Meacham conceded. “I don’t want to just rubber-stamp anyone. We probably need to play a game or something. I’m a little reluctant to do that at this juncture.”
When Ribordy’s history of concussions forced him out of football earlier this year, junior Andru Tovi projected as KU’s potential starting center for 2018. Now that Fontana is on board, he has a shot to emerge as the No. 1 center.
Beaty said Tovi and redshirt freshman Joey Gilbertson, like Fontana, are “in the mix” to play the position.
A quarterback who only joined the program a few months before Fontana, sophomore Miles Kendrick noted that, through sharing time on the field with the center this summer, he had learned that Fontana is “a tough, mean dude,” calling him an “obviously” great addition to the offense.
“I’ve seen a lot of focus from him,” Kendrick said. “Definitely one of the older guys. He’s been previously at a pretty good football program. Just seeing the way he’s come in and just trying to be a sponge and taking everything in and really trying to lead and take control of that front five, that’s really what’s impressed me.”