Mason Cole will get an earlier-than-expected shot at starting center

"I'm confident I can fill in, and hopefully play as well as he has," said rookie Mason Cole of injured center A.Q. Shipley. "I've learned a lot from A.Q., plan to still learn a lot from him." AP Photo/Matt York

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Mason Cole hasn't played center in two years. But the rookie third-round pick from Michigan finds himself front and center at the pivotal position on the Arizona Cardinals front line.

Cole is set to become the Cardinals' No. 1 center with Monday's announcement that veteran A.Q. Shipley will miss the season with a torn ACL. If Cole is the starter when the NFL regular season begins next month, the Cardinals will have three new faces up front with Cole and two veterans, guard Justin Pugh and tackle Andre Smith.

"I'm confident I can fill in, and hopefully play as well as he has," Cole said. "I've learned a lot from A.Q., plan to still learn a lot from him."

Cole isn't untested despite his lack of NFL experience. He started every game of his four-year career at Michigan, playing both center and left tackle for the Wolverines. The 6-foot-5, 307-pound rookie was the first true freshman to start on the offensive line in school history back in 2014, and he feels that coming from former NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh's offense at Michigan will help him.

Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks expressed confidence in Cole, and said veteran quarterback Sam Bradford will also help bring the rookie along.

"Highly intelligent. All the reasons why we drafted him is the reason why he's here, and he's getting ready to step in and prove that he can play at this level," Wilks said.

"The biggest thing for me is go out there and play football," Cole said. "I think that's why they drafted me here, in case anything like that ever happened."

But losing Shipley is a big blow to the Cardinals' offense, which Wilks noted Monday when describing how deflating it was for the team to see Shipley carted off the field during Saturday's practice.

"We've got to hit the reset button," Wilks said. "It's part of how things go throughout the year, and we've just got to keep pressing."

Wilks is emphasizing the running game in his offense, a prospect with which the offensive line has expressed its delight. Shipley was already recognized by Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as a leader who was key to the scheme.

"The guy that really anchors everything to me is A.Q.," Wilks said last week. "I think Shipley does a great job with his communication identifying the [middle linebacker]. Setting us up right with protection. Everything starts with him. Everybody talks about size, length and this and that. He's gritty, he's dirty, I love him."

Shipley has also been durable. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he's missed only four offensive snaps in the past two seasons, playing 2,141 of the Cardinals' 2,145 (99.8 percent) offensive plays.

Should Cole not be deemed ready, the door could be open for former fourth-round pick Evan Boehm and second-year pro Daniel Munyer to take the job. Both will see more snaps in practice, Wilks said. A look at an external candidate might also happen.

Teammates have already felt the impact of Shipley's loss.

"He's a good leader. We're going to miss him," defensive tackle Rodney Gunter said.

"Guys are going to step up and rally around Mason. We know what he can bring to the table. We know he's ready for it and we're excited for him," Pugh said. "I didn't watch much Cardinals football last year. You get in this building and you realize who runs things and who does things the right way, and A.Q. is one of those guys. He's going to help me, help Mason, help all of us throughout this next year."