Any defensive player, as well as any receiver or running back on his own team, can tip or bat a ball at the center. The most typical instances a center lawfully collects a forward pass are when it is deflected by the defender's outstretched palm and pops straight in the air. If this happens, the ball is in play, and the opposing team has possession of it. Otherwise, it would be difficult for the quarterback to complete a pass.
There have been cases where a center has caught a pass, although they are rare. For example, former Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz did so in an October 2001 game against the New York Jets. Kreutz was able to reel in a pass from Kordell Stewart and run 80 yards for a touchdown. However, because he was not covered by any defenders and took the ball out of bounds before reaching the end zone, it is believed that he violated several rules during the play. As such, his touchdown was removed from the official record book.
Another instance occurred in a college football game between Texas Christian University and the University of Houston on November 18, 1990. During that contest, TCU quarterback Matt Simms passed to its center Mike McGrath who was then hit by Houston linebacker Antonio Davis. Although McGrath was not covered by any defensive players, he was still in motion when he received the ball and thus lost control of it, allowing Davis to grab it first.
Batted or tipped balls Any defensive player, as well as any receiver or running back on his own team, can tip or bat a ball at the center. Once the ball makes contact with a defender or an eligible player, any other player on the field is free to catch it and advance the play. The exception is if the player who hit the ball attempts to return it by batting it (i.e., hitting it with the hand or arms). If this happens, the player is called for a foul unless he is able to secure the ball before it hits the ground.
Yes, as long as they are not heading in the direction of the returner.
There have been several instances where receivers have caught batted passes. Most notable was when Jerry Rice did so against Michael Irvin of the San Francisco 49ers in January 1999. In that game, Rice beat Irvin to a ball that was hit by Pro Bowl wideout Tim Dwight. Instead of returning it, however, Irvin tried to run with it and was tackled by Rice who then ran 51 yards for a touchdown.
Another example came last season when Antonio Brown did so twice against the New England Patriots. He caught one pass from Ben Roethlisberger and then again later in the game with Pittsburgh down by two scores. This time he took it to the house for a 68-yard touchdown.
If a center catches a ball that has not been thrown to him, the action is illegal but does not result in a penalty because no foul was called by the referee.
The center cannot declare as an eligible receiver while also being the player who snaps the ball and unable to line up legally. That's why they're called "pass protection" players.
In modern pro football, the center is usually the tallest player on the field, so he often gets the opportunity to catch passes. However, due to the nature of his job, most centers do not want to be forced into catching balls that have been thrown away or intercepted. This role was once held by many great receivers including Fred Baugh, Cliff Battles, Frank Gifford, and Mike Ditka. Today, some centers can become effective receivers if used properly by their coaches, but this ability is not common.
In college football, the center typically lines up near the middle of the field and throws snap shots to the other teams' linebackers before the play. Many big time college centers have ended up playing in the NFL, including Carl Eller, Dave Pender, Mark Colternbanna, and Andy Lee.
In high school football, the center is the only player who can't be replaced by a substitute. Thus, they generally receive special attention from recruiting services.