STILLWATER — Evan Epstein locks eyes with the competitor across from him, anticipating his chance to make the first move.
But the Oklahoma State center isn't prepping to blow up the opponent's nose tackle.
He's playing another “epic” chess match with his father, Buckeye.
“We'll decide to play a quick game before dinner, and it ends up turning into some two-hour event,” Epstein said of the showdowns with his dad back home in the Dallas suburb of McKinney. “And my mom's just furious with us, because she wants to go eat, and we're sitting here trying to outsmart each other.”
Those brains will likely serve Epstein well as he tries to replace Grant Garner at one of football's most cerebral positions. Though he possesses the strength and size to play center, what teammates and coaches rave most about is Epstein's intelligence.
“I'd want my center to be the only one to know how to play chess,” fellow offensive lineman Lane Taylor said with a smile. “He's a smart guy, so he'd fit that role.”
The knowledge Epstein acquired at Dallas Bishop Lynch High School, both in the classroom and on the field, got him admitted to the Air Force Academy and earned him a football scholarship. He's gained even more while sitting behind, and learning from, Andrew Lewis and Garner since transferring to OSU in 2009.
Epstein has yet to really use everything his mind has absorbed on the field, though, as he's played sparingly during his time as a Cowboy. And sophomore Jake Jenkins is also in the mix for the starting center job.
But Epstein has put himself in position to make an impact in his senior season.
“It's not like he hasn't been in this offense,” OSU offensive line coach Joe Wickline said. “He's been around long enough to where it's slowed down a little bit. He understands when we make subtle changes. He understands when the defense makes subtle changes.
“It remains to be seen in a game situation, for all of us, whether he'll get it done or not.”
The same could have been said in the past about Lewis or Garner, who were relative unknowns before sliding into the starting role. Lewis helped anchor an OSU line that allowed just 11 sacks in 2009, and Garner developed into the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year last season.
Epstein hopes to be next. And it's already been a long road for him to even become a contender for this job.
Lynch coach Bill Persinger calls Epstein the best center he's had in his 35 years as a high school coach. But Epstein did not receive any offers from BCS schools and instead opted to go to Air Force, the school he called the “most unique, toughest place I could have gone, on all spectrums.”
But after a season at the Academy, he still had that strong desire to play football at a school from a major conference. He told Persinger he was going to walk on at OSU — and promised he'd someday become the starter. Though Persinger told Epstein he needed to get stronger, he never doubted the player's competitive nature.
“If there's any kind of battle for anything, Evan's not going to lose,” Persinger said. “I'll tell you that right now. This has been a lifelong dream. I'm sure the other kid (Jenkins) is a fantastic player, but I just know what drives Evan and that innate ability.”
Epstein primarily played on special teams during the past two seasons but took an occasional snap at right guard. He's always been drawn to playing center, though. He likes being able to touch the ball before every play, and he likes the sense of control the position provides in OSU's up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
That control comes from the center's wide range of responsibilities. So many that former OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden called Garner the Cowboys' most valuable offensive player in 2011.
The center must make the offensive line calls for a complicated scheme, something Epstein observed and learned while “getting inside the mind of Grant” the past two seasons. The center must also handle those big defensive tackles and linebackers trying to plug the holes designed for the running backs or get to the quarterback.
And then there's the snap, which is especially important for an OSU offense that runs exclusively out of the shotgun. That was evident last week, when Epstein missed two practices because of pneumonia and there were several bad snaps in his absence.
Epstein knows the mental part of his game will be the most critical in securing that starting job and having success in 2012. But he wants to show he can be the complete package, rather than just the Cowboys' resident chess master. That specific skill can be reserved for Dad.
“I want to be the smartest center, I want to be the strongest center and the most physical and the most in shape,” Epstein said. “There are so many different aspects that I personally want to strive to succeed.
“Every day, I come out here and I try to focus on one thing at a time, but I want it to culminate into something special.”